Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
On May 11, 1984, smoke filled the haunted castle as actors dressed as butchers and hunchbacks corralled patrons out of the burning building. Strobe lights gave glances of the grim scene. However, no one knew until after the fire was extinguished the true toll of the fire.
There was a long line outside of the connected trailers and plywood that made up the haunted castle at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, New Jersey. The workers let groups of 25 in at a time. A thirteen year old boy in line was afraid, so a fourteen year old befriended him before entering the castle. He whipped open his lighter, lighting the way for the younger boy. Soon after, he bumped into a wall, which was covered in polyurethane padding. The wall immediately went up in flames. The fourteen year old began patting down the fire with his hands, when the fire didn't go out, but instead spread, he and his young friend ran out of the entrance yelling, "Fire!"
The structure was made of plywood and tar paper, while the props inside were made of foam rubber, fabric, and wax. The building had no fire protection, and many safety features were unusable because of vandals. The exit lights were burnt out. Fire alarms were vandalized and never replaced after 1979. In addition, exit doors were allegedly chained and emergency exits were fenced in and not accessible by patrons.
When the fourteen year old boy's lighter bumped into the polyurethane covered wall, the fire spread quickly due to the flammable props. The boy and his friend ran out of the haunted house yelling, "Fire!" An employee went to go investigate because patrons were often pulling pranks. Another employee, the actor playing "The Butcher," smelled the smoke and began helping patrons out of the darkened halls. Everyone was believed to be out of the castle.
Firefighters arrived from eleven surrounding areas. They were able to get the fire under control by 7:45pm. The park remained open during the entirety of the fire and closed at 8pm (2 hours before the normal closing time). Firefighters conducted a typical walk through once the fire was extinguished and found, what they thought, were mannequins. The grim reality set in though, and the firefighters realized that 8 teenagers were killed in the fire. The teens had dropped to their knees and tried to crawl out of the exhibit. One girl made is to the exit before becoming unconscious, and a park employee carried her out. However, the other eight teens were found with their faces against air conditioning grates, trying to gasp some fresh air.
When the bodies were found, they were immediately put into white body bags to differentiate them from the numerous mannequins found at the scene. Twenty-nine people were in the exhibit at the time. Fourteen people were able to escape, including all four employees. Seven were treated for smoke inhalation.
The fire spotlighted local, state, and federal laws that were inadequate. The haunted castle had regular inspections and always passed. Because of this, a state panel determined that the regulatory system had failed at all levels, and the reality was, although they had passed, they were actually in violation of dozens of state codes.
On September 14, 1984 Great Adventure and their parent company Six Flags were indicted along with two park executives. Great Adventures and Six Flags were charged with aggravated manslaughter while the park management were charged with manslaughter for reckless conduct because they repeatedly ignored safety warnings. Prosecution argued that safety consultants continuously warned park management that they should install sprinklers and smoke alarms, but the consultants were ignored. However, the defendants said that it was arson and no amount of safety precautions would prevent the loss of life. Defense brought a forensic pathologist to the stand who claimed that "high levels" of benzene in the victim's blood "could indicate some sinister reason for the fire."
During trial, five fire prevention consultants were called to the stand. All five recommended the installation of fire sprinklers and smoke alarms for five years straight, but the recommendations were never completed. In addition, workers at Great Adventure testified that no exit lights were working and that there were no fire alarms. They also testified that patrons often used lighters and smoked in the exhibit. They claimed that management rejected their pleas for the safety measures because of the expense.
After 8 weeks, the jury found the two companies not guilty. The jury felt the problem was with Jackson Township for allowing the castle to slip by on the fire codes.
Following the fire and trial, nearly all New Jersey haunted houses were closed pending fire inspections. New Jersey and other states soon passed a new fire protection law that affected all "dark rides" and any structure that "intentionally disorients." In 1988, a new section was added to NFPA: Special Provisions for Special Amusement Buildings." It required that every special amusement building be "protected throughout by an approved automatic sprinkler system" that is properly installed and maintained. If the building was portable, the water supply "may be by approved temporary means." If the building had low lighting levels, the code required an addition of smoke detection that would sound an alarm at "a constantly attended location on the premises." Upon the activation of the smoke detector or sprinkler system an "illumination in the means of egress" was required to be activated. It would also cause the automatic silence of "conflicting or confusing sounds and visuals."
The fire caused a far-sweeping affect for all amusement buildings. While, in the past, they were able to avoid fire codes because they were used temporarily, the Great Adventure Haunted Castle fire provided an unattractive reality that forced regulation, providing fire protection for all amusement exhibit patrons.