Responding to the Smiler rollercoaster accident

07 Jun 2018

At IOSH 2018, Dominic Wigley, Group Health, Safety and Security Director for Merlin Entertainments, will recall the Smiler rollercoaster accident at their Alton Towers theme park, how they managed the aftermath and the lessons learned.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Dominic in IOSH Magazine in June 2017, which was printed two years on from the accident.

On 2 June 2015, Wigley was on holiday with his family on the Spanish island of Menorca – “to leverage the last opportunity of a holiday in term time before my children started school”. Returning from an afternoon on the beach, his wife turned on the TV in their apartment and the screen was filled with BBC News helicopter footage of the Alton Towers crash scene.

“There was that cold moment of realisation that something significant had happened at the resort,” he recalls. “My phone was in the apartment safe; I turned it on and there were quite a few missed calls, as you can imagine.”

He immediately joined Merlin’s crisis management conference calls, then caught the first available flight back to the UK, arriving at the park the next lunchtime, where he would spend two weeks working with the company’s chief executive, other senior directors and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

His team was “in shock, they couldn’t quite believe what had happened”, he says, but were working professionally to manage the immediate aftermath, supporting the emergency services and investigating authorities. “At that point we were still unaware of the severity of the injuries,” he says.

The OSH staff had also started gathering and preserving information for their own and the regulators’ investigations, “quarantining records because we knew that they would need to be made available to the HSE and making sure we could take our own statements from those who were closest to the events in the hour prior to the incident. So the safety team were ready to support me as I turned up on site to help lead our investigation.”

That evidence gathering helped the company come to an early decision to offer a “fast and sincere” apology for the accident, but also to verify that guests on the hundreds of rides at Merlin’s other parks were not at risk.

From a crisis room at the resort, the response was orchestrated by Wigley, working with senior colleagues from across the company as well as those resident at Alton Towers. Major decisions were ratified by the chief executive who had chartered a helicopter from the company’s Dorset head office in the early hours of the incident to support the assembled team.

There was no disagreement over the early response. “The notion of doing the right thing was in our DNA,” he says. “That ran through everything that we decided. Our greatest priority was to ensure the needs of those injured, and their families, were taken care of.”

He spent two weeks at the park, co-ordinating the response and putting together the company’s interim investigation report.

“By this stage there had been a ‘Do not disturb’ notice put on the ride by the HSE, so we were dealing with CCTV that we had access to and witness statements we were able to obtain. We were trying to put all these threads together to really understand the causation chain on the day of the incident.”

Hear more from Dominic and others at IOSH 2018. Book your place before 21 July and save money with our early bird discount.

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