Alton Towers Smiler ride reopens nine months after serious accident


Alton Towers theme park has reopened the Smiler roller-coaster today - nine months after an accident which left five people with serious or life-changing injuries.

The venue said it has sought to "learn every possible lesson" from last June's crash before deciding to restart the £18 million ride.

Two teenage passengers - Vicky Balch and Leah Washington - underwent leg amputations after their carriage collided with a stationary car on the Smiler ride on June 2.

Three other people were also seriously injured in the crash, which park owner Merlin Entertainments said was due to human error.

Today, thrill-seekers coming off the ride expressed delight at the reopening - but also sympathy with the victims, some of whom were left with dreadful injuries.

Zach Lowe, who calls himself The Smiler Man on social media, ran to be first on the ride, as he has done in each of the previous two years of operation.

He said: "When it closed I was a bit disappointed."

But the 20-year-old, from Leeds, added he had sympathy with the badly injured victims, three of whom have already expressed a wish the ride had never been switched back on.

He said: "I fully respect them and have deep sympathy. It should never have happened. I understand where they are coming from."

Among the badly injured victims in June last year, was Ms Washington's boyfriend, Joe Pugh, who was left with life-changing injuries when both his kneecaps were shattered.

Speaking to ITV's Good Morning Britain on the eve of the reopening, Mr Pugh, from Barnsley, said he would have preferred the ride to have remained shut.

"I think it would have been a bit unrealistic if we had both said 'I don't think it's ever going to reopen again' because it always was going to, but if people choose to go on it that's up to them," Mr Pugh said.

"Seeing it go round, it's not something that I want to see. I would have preferred for it to be closed."

The ride's popularity seemed undiminished as people queued for up to an hour by midday to get a go on one of the bright yellow carriages.

Season pass holders Rowan Howard, aged 20, and 21-year-old Aaron Hussain, described the queue time as "crazy, but worth it" and were satisfied with the new safety arrangements.

Ms Howard said: "Safety should be higher now than after the crash.

"They've had all their checks - it's been nine months, so it should be safer than usual."

Asked if the park was quieter, she added: "It's busier than it was last season.

"Last year it was not busy at all, we could get on rides in 10 minutes. It's a lot busier than usual."

Engineer Paul Hewitt and his 12-year-old son Tom had travelled from Sheffield to ride the roller-coaster, with the youngster declaring: "It's a really good ride, I really enjoyed it."

The 49-year-old, who is a maintenance manager for Doncaster's precision forges, said he had no safety concerns because as soon as he heard the news he had a gut feeling human error was to blame.

He said: "I know how they design these things, with triple-safety PLCs (programmable logic controllers).

"I told the lad - we were on it the weekend before it (the crash) happened - and he heard the news and was up in arms.

"I said to him 'I know how they build these things and I know how they design these things, so whatever has gone on, someone has overridden something' - and that's what it turned out to be."

Mr Hewitt agreed with reopening the ride, but understood why the victims did not want to see it operating again.

"There's going to be an element of that feeling but then again you could say that about car accidents, 'let's ban cars', you know, it's not the machine's fault.

"In this case, if the machine had been found to be faulty by design, then yes, take it apart, start it again, but we don't ban motor cars because we have car accidents

"It's usually the people driving them."

Meanwhile, Neil Charteris had taken his turn on the ride with daughters Laura, aged 22, and Charlotte, 19, having driven down from nearby Cannock, in Staffordshire.

He said: "We were on the second car - we would have been on the first but my daughter couldn't keep up."

"My daughter was a bit scared, when she first came down but she was all right in the queue."

The 52-year-old plastics engineer said he had "no concerns at all" about the rides safety, saying: "We're just glad to get back on it, put everything behind us and carry on as normal."

Asked if he felt sympathy with the crash victims' wishes not to see the ride reopened he said: "Not really."

"I was actually here the day it crashed - we'd already been on it," he added.

"What people forgot was there was a young girl killed on a road crash outside in the village, on the same day, and nobody remembers that."

In a statement this week, Alton Towers said the safety of its guests and employees must always be paramount.

A park spokesman said: "We have sought to learn every possible lesson to help ensure there is no repeat of what happened.

"The park has implemented a number of changes to the way the ride is operated, including enhanced training and additional safety procedures.

"All of the resort's rides and attractions are subject to a thorough annual safety inspection and testing regime through third party ride safety specialists.

"The Smiler has been re-examined and issued with a document of compliance as part of this scheme before reopening."

A criminal prosecution of Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, which manages Alton Towers, was announced by the Health and Safety Executive in February.

The case against the company, alleging breaches of health and safety law, is due to be heard at North Staffordshire Justice Centre next month.