The Alton Towers rollercoaster crash, which left two teenagers needing leg amputations and several other victims with serious injuries, was similar having a car accident at 90mph, a court has heard.
Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, which operates the theme park, has been warned to expect a “very large fine” for health and safety breaches which led to a carriage on The Smiler ride smashing into another empty carriage.
The accident, in June 2015, left five people with life-changing injuries, including two teenagers each lost a leg. Other people were trapped for hours on the Smiler ride.
Several of those left trapped on the ride after the crash in June last year attendes the first day of a two-day sentencing hearing at Stafford Crown Court on Monday.
Vcky Balch, then 19, and Leah Washington, then 17, who each lost a leg in the crash in June last year and several other people who were trapped for hours attended Stafford Crown Court on Monday for the sentencing hearing.
A court hearing in April this year was told Merlin had conducted an internal investigation following the incident, which established that a worker manually “overrode” the ride’s governing computer system.
Indicating a guilty plea to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act, Merlin’s barrister told the previous hearing that the company accepted additional measures could have been taken to guard against safety risks.
Daniel Thorpe, 27 suffered a collapsed lung and leg injuries and Chanda Chauhan, 49, sustained internal injuries.
On Monday, prosecutor Bernard Thorogood told the court that the passengers on the ride watched with “disbelief and horror” as realised they were going to collide with an empty carriage.
The kinetic energy involved in the crash was equivalent to “a family car of 1.5 tons having collided at about 90mph”, he said.
Thorogood told the that an empty, test carriage was sent around the ride but came to rest, unseen by the staff.
“The subsequent collision was plain to see to some in the train, and I refer to those in the front row’s statements, where they speak of their disbelief and horror as they saw ahead up the track the train into which there were going to dive,” he said.
The victims of the crash were stuck at a “very difficult angle” around 20ft above ground waiting for medical attention because of the inaccessibility of that part of the ride after the crash, the court heard.
At the beginning of Monday’s hearing, the Recorder of Stafford, Judge Michael Chambers QC, said: “One of the features is not just the impact on those injured, but on those close to them.”
The court heard that the theme park had made 30 changes to improve safety since the crash.
Thorogood said the fine against Merlin could be between £3,000 and £10 million but could be increased even higher should it be found to be a “large organisation”.
He said there was a “frustration of those on the train that those on the ground did not grasp the enormity of the injuries” suffered by those on the ride.
Simon Antrobus, defending Merlin, said the company’s top executives had accepted responsibility for the crash from the day it happened and had apologised.
He said that Merlin “accepts its responsibility that this should never have happened and accepted that the accident was attributable to failures that, while they were never intended, would have been avoidable with greater care”.
Describing Merlin as “the most reputable operator in this field”, he added that the firm employed 8,000 staff across 11 different sites - with more than 120 individual rides - serving 16 million visitors a year.
Antrobus said: “It’s a good organisation that made a serious failure, but is one that is of otherwise good character.”