By Chris Cato
Tuesday marks one month since a miniature train crashed at Cleveland Park, taking the life of 6-year old Benjamin Easler and injuring 28 others. From the beginning, Spartanburg Parks Commission officials have maintained the amusement ride to their knowledge had never before derailed.
But now there is legal tesitmony from a woman saying one of the park's trains derailed in the summer of 2010.
Stephanie Ponce of Spartanburg signed an affidavit for an attorney representing a family that was injured in the crash. The affidavit states that sometime between July and September 2010, she and her mother and two of her sons were on the train when the first four cars came off the tracks.
“We were approaching the gazebo when the cars just kind of slid off the tracks,” says Ponce. “We didn't turn over and there wasn't even much of a bump. But the train definitely came off the tracks. The first few cars were just sitting in the grass there next to the tracks.”
Ponce says the park suspended train rides for the day. She said as the crowd was walking away from the displaced train, the conductor said it must have come off the tracks “because there was too much weight on it”.
The park has two identical miniature trains. Ponce said the train involved in 2010 was the green train, not the red one that crashed on March 19th. She says following the deadly crash, she was stunned to hear parks officials say the amusement ride had had no previous derailments.
“I just knew that wasn't true and knew we had to say something,” says Ponce. She said she reached out to attorney Tom Killoren when she read in media reports that he was representing a family injured in the crash.
Ponce's mother, Louise Wickersheim, was also on board the train on that day in the summer of 2010.
“I just couldn't believe it when I heard them say it had not derailed before,” says Wickersheim. “The train was full of people that day (in 2010). They had witnesses. I don't understand why the park staff wouldn't have written something about the derailment in a log. It would have taken more than one person to put those cars back on the track. That means there were at least two people who knew the train had previous problems.”
A spokesperson for the Spartanburg Parks Commission says the commisison stands by its previous statement that the agency had no knowledge of any previous derailments.
“According to maintenance records that we released, there was no sign that anything happened,” said Nisha Patel.
Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger subpoenaed Parks maintenance records as part of his investigation into the deadly crash. He said there is evidence of a previous derailment at the park, but he would not elaborate on the nature of that evidence.
Matt Conrad was driving the train that crashed in March. Ponce said she could not remember if he was behind the wheel when her family was on the train that derailed in 2010. Conrad's attorney, Grant Varner, said he asked his client if he remembers a derailment that summer.
“He said he was not involved in any derailment, but he did hear about one happening before he started working there,” said Varner. Conrad began driving the trains for the park in April 2010, according to his own blog.
“If one happened after he started working there, it must have been on one of his days off,” said Varner.