TAMPA — Everything was fine on the roller coaster - at first.
Every seat was taken on the Cheetah Hunt ride at Busch Gardens at about 2:30 p.m. The 16 people on board, ranging from teenagers to those in their 70s, braced themselves for the rush that comes with defying gravity.
Then, unexpectedly, the ride stopped, with the cars about 60 feet up in the air. The ride operator tried to nudge the cars back to their station, but that didn’t work.
To make matters worse, a storm was heading toward the park.
For one of the few times in its history, Busch Gardens officials called Tampa Fire Rescue to come rescue the riders.
The fire department arrived about 4 p.m. They found the roller coaster had stopped at a point on the ride where the cars were were at an angle at about 30 degrees, said Emilio Salabarria, a Tampa Fire Rescue special operations chief.
Unbuckling the riders caused stress for both the passengers and firefighters, he said.
“We were able to put some nice harness on them before we moved them and got them onto the bucket and lowered them down to the ground,” Salabarria said.
The first person was removed from the roller coaster at 4:46 p.m. The last was removed at 5:48 p.m.
“Just a little more than an hour is pretty good,” said Jason Penny, a fire rescue spokesman.
There were no injuries and no one was taken to the hospital. Busch Gardens had provided ponchos for the passengers, who seemed calm and patient, Penny said.
“Everyone sat patiently and looked fine,’’ Penny said.
Busch Gardens released a press release on its Facebook page saying no problems were apparent before the ride was launched and the weather was clear.
Bad weather had moved in, though, by the time the rescue operation was finished. Every five minutes, firefighters checked the weather with the agency’s dispatch center. The closest lightning strike was three miles away, Salabarria said.
“We really thought about shutting down operation but we continued,” Salabarria said. “It was just a great operation. Everything was done safely.’’
Travis Claytor, a spokesman for Busch Gardens, said the roller coaster had just left the station where the ride starts when it malfunctioned.
The passengers were stranded at a crest, where the ride starts to bank.
“We have not encountered the ride stuck in this position before,” Claytor said.
Firefighters used two ladder trucks and a bucket truck provided by Busch Gardens to rescue the riders. A total of 14 fire units responded to the scene.
Once the riders were removed from the roller coaster, they were taken to a Busch Gardens hospitality area, where they were provided snacks and coffee, jackets and umbrellas. Workers from the theme park then drove the riders to their cars in the parking lot, Claytor said.
Busch Gardens officials don’t know why the roller coaster stopped. The computer system on the roller coaster will automatically shut down the ride if the computer senses something amiss, Claytor said.
“We’ll be investigating this evening and into tomorrow,’’ Claytor said.
A thorough investigation of the ride will be completed before it is reopened, according to a Busch Gardens press release published on Facebook.