Smiler crash: Alton Towers operator Merlin fined £5m

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Media caption,

Victims' solicitor Paul Paxton said "money alone will never replace limbs"

Alton Towers operator Merlin has been fined £5m for the crash on the Smiler rollercoaster.

Sixteen people were injured in the June 2015 crash, including two teenage girls who needed leg amputations.

In April, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd admitted breaching the Health and Safety Act.

The theme park originally said the accident was caused by "human error." But prosecutors argued the fault was with the employer not individuals.

Sentencing, Judge Michael Chambers QC described the crash on the £18m attraction as a "catastrophic failure" and said human error was not the cause as was suggested at first.

"This was a needless and avoidable accident in which those who were injured were lucky not to be killed," he said.

'Catalogue of errors'

He said the crash was foreseeable but accepted the defendant had taken full and extensive steps to remedy the problems that led to the crash.

Speaking outside court after sentencing, Paul Paxton, representing eight of the victims, said his clients had been "shocked and disappointed by the catalogue of errors".

Image caption,
Sixteen people were injured in the crash last June

He added: "Money alone will never replace limbs, nor heal the psychological scars."

Nick Varney, chief executive of Merlin Entertainments, said they were determined to "never repeat" the devastating accident and stressed the firm was not an emotionless corporate entity.

"In this context, the far greater punishment for all of us is knowing that on this occasion we let people down with devastating consequences," he said.

"It is something we will never forget and it is something we are utterly determined will never be repeated."

The court had heard on Monday how engineers failed to notice a carriage that had stopped midway around the 14-loop ride.

Media caption,

Merlin Entertainments chief executive Nick Varney said they were determined to "never repeat" the devastating accident

They assumed there was a problem with the computer and over-rode the stop mechanism setting another train in motion and into the empty carriage.

Bernard Thorogood, prosecuting, said workers had not been been given a system to follow which would safely deal with the issue.

He said engineers had not read or seen the ride's operating instructions.

Image caption,
Vicky Balch, Daniel Thorp, Joe Pugh and Leah Washington (L-R), who were all seriously injured in the crash, attended the sentencing hearing

He also pointed out there were estimated winds on the day of the crash of 45mph but the manufacturer's manual stated the ride should not be operated at wind speeds above 34mph.

Simon Antrobus, defending Merlin, said a press release in November blaming "human error" was wrong and had been corrected.

He said a safety procedure had been in place, including an alarm designed to sound when wind speeds exceed 32mph - but it did not go off.

Vicky Balch, then 19, and Leah Washington, then 17, each lost a leg in the crash, which took place at 13:50 BST.

How events unfolded

•When the park opened on 2 June 2015 four trains were operating on The Smiler; a fifth was stored away

•At 13:00 BST one of the trains developed a problem; technical staff were called

•An engineer thought it was a good opportunity to maximise the capacity for riders with the fifth train because the park was busy

•An empty test train was sent but failed

•Engineers pushed the train until it engaged with the system and it went off

•Another empty train was sent out. It got stuck, too, but in a different place

•Engineers were unaware of this, thought everything was working fine and handed the rider back over to operators

•The train with 16 passengers on was sent out and stopped

•The engineers looked but could not see the stalled car, thought the computer was wrong, and over-rode the stop. This set the 16-passenger train in motion and into the empty carriage

Daniel Thorpe and Chandaben Chauhan were also badly injured. All four were in court for sentencing.

The Health and Safety Executive - whose investigation concluded the accident could have been avoided - said Merlin had let its customers down.

"This avoidable incident happened because Merlin failed to put in place systems that allowed their engineers to work safely on the ride while it was running," Neil Craig, head of the HSE in the Midlands.

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A carriage containing 16 passengers crashed into an empty train that had stopped midway around the 14-loop ride.

"This made it all too easy for a whole series of unchecked mistakes, not just the single push of a button, to result in tragedy."

Merlin would have been fined £7.5m had it not pleaded guilty.

The Smiler ride reopened in March.

Since the crash, a number of safety changes have been made including improved access and a policy of closing the ride when winds exceed 34mph.