Third Disney employee dies in just over month

August 19th, 2009 by

Orlando Sentinel
Federal safety investigators began piecing together details Tuesday of an accident at Walt Disney World in which an employee died after breaking his neck as he rehearsed his part in a popular stunt show.

Anislav Varbanov, a 30-year-old worker who recently joined the cast of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, became the third resort employee killed this summer following an on-the-job accident.

While all three involved widely disparate circumstances, investigators probing each will be on the lookout for any common contributing factors.

“We’re going to have to look at each incident to see if there’s any pattern,” said Michael Wald, a spokesman for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is also investigating.

Vabanov died Monday evening about two hours after he was injured while rehearsing a tumbling roll for the Indiana Jones stunt show. One employee said he had been told that Varbanov, who officials said had joined the show about a week ago, landed awkwardly on his neck.

The Orange-Osceola County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Tuesday that Varbanov died of a cervical spine fracture in his neck.

A tumbling roll is a common acrobatic maneuver in the Indiana Jones show, Disney spokeswoman Zoraya Suarez said. “During rehearsal, the performer jumps in the air, dives over another performer, then tucks and rolls onto the mat,” she said.

“It’s common to rehearse after the last performance. However, in this case, those in the rehearsal had not performed in that day’s show,” she added.

In a 911 call released Tuesday, a frantic co-worker describes the injury to an emergency dispatcher with the Reedy Creek Improvement District. “We need a helicopter,” the caller says. “We’ve done these a million times. We always have injuries on the stage.”

Disney canceled all Tuesday performances of the Indiana Jones show while it reviewed the incident. But the resort said it would reopen the show today and pointed out that Varbanov had been attempting a routine stunt.

“It’s worth noting that this stunt is a common acrobatic maneuver and had been performed successfully thousands of times since the show was created,” Suarez said.

Maria Somma, a spokeswoman for the Actor’s Equity Association, which represents many performers at Disney World, said it has representatives who conduct occasional reviews of shows to ensure there are no safety problems.

“When a show is as long-running as Indy is, they make periodic visits just to watch the show and see how it’s working and make sure everything is still up to the standards that it should be,” Somma said. She said she was not aware of any recent concerns raised about the Indiana Jones show.

“It’s too early to say anything” about causes, Somma added.

The accident came just a week after the death of 47-year-old actor Mark Priest, who was injured after stumbling into a wall during a performance of Captain Jack’s Pirate Tutorial in the Magic Kingdom.

Priest’s best friend said Priest told him while still in the hospital that he had slipped on a “damp” spot on stage, though a stagehand working that day has told investigators the stage had been in safe working condition before the performance.

Priest’s death followed a July 5 collision on Disney’s storied monorail that killed 21-year-old driver Austin Wuennenberg.

OSHA and the Sheriff’s Office are investigating both of those accidents, too. The National Transportation Safety Board is also probing the monorail crash.

Disney said there is nothing to link the three tragedies.

“The only common thread is the sense of loss we feel for these valued cast members. Each of these incidents was unique and is being reviewed individually,” Suarez said.

The accidents do come amid a recent increase in workplace-safety probes at Disney World.

Records show that OSHA has started 17 investigations at the giant resort since the start of 2007, including the three launched this summer. During the previous five years combined, the federal agency opened just three investigations.

Of the 17 investigations since the start of 2007, eight were sparked by complaints and seven by accidents, while two were planned ahead of time by OSHA.

“These incidents are not related, and this is not indicative of a trend regarding safety at Walt Disney World,” Suarez said.

The summer accidents have generated a torrent of negative publicity for Disney World amid what has already been the most challenging economic environment in recent memory. But industry consultant John Gerner said the three fatalities in the past seven weeks are unlikely to affect business at Disney.

“It’s sad to say, but I think it makes a difference if it’s an employee versus a guest,” said Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors in Richmond, Va. Guests accept that “employees are generally in riskier situations than they are, for a variety of reasons.”

He added, “There doesn’t seem to be a pattern that a guest would put together.”

One Response

  1. FormerCM

    I’m surprise more people aren’t dying, considering the way disney conducts its business.

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