Police search Sega offices after amusement park death

Internal reports seized by authorities reveal 50 accidents at Sega Joypolis; Japanese government orders competing parks to step up safety procedures.

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TOKYO--The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported that 12 investigators from the Tokyo Waterfront Police and Metropolitan Police Department's First Criminal Investigation Section searched Sega's headquarters last Thursday.

The search was conducted on suspicion of "professional negligence" related to the death of a handicapped man who accidentally fell from a skydiving simulator. The ride, called "Viva! Skydiving" was at the Sega-owned Joypolis amusement center located in Tokyo's Daiba waterfront area.

As reported earlier, the accident occurred on April 18. Junichi Tsubouchi, a 30-year-old unemployed man from Ishikawa Prefecture fell about 15 feet from the skydiving simulator and died 90 minutes later. Tsubouchi was restricted to a wheelchair.

The Sega offices searched were Sega Corporation in Ota Ward, Tokyo, an office at the Sega Joypolis complex in Tokyo's Daiba area, and another office of a company with ties to Sega.

The police search of Sega's Tokyo offices uncovered a disturbing accident report, which authorities released to Japanese news media outlets on Friday. According to the Kyodo News service, police revealed that Sega’s Tokyo office recorded more than 50 accidents since the amusement center opened in July of 1996. Sega Joypolis has 23 rides, including the skydiving simulator.

Several serious injuries were reported in the accident report, including bone fractures caused by visitors being wedged between equipment. One accident last month involved a Sega Joypolis employee who sustained a head injury after being hit by a roller coaster while picking up lost property. The "Viva! Skydiving" ride was mentioned numerous times as a ride where accidents had previously occurred.

The report contradicts previous statements made by Sega president and COO Hisao Oguchi. A a press conference after the accident, he said there had been no mishaps at the park. It's unclear if Oguchi had seen the Sega Joypolis accident report uncovered by Tokyo police officials at the time of his statement.

Tokyo police issued a statement saying they would investigate all past accidents that had occurred at Joypolis. It will also investigate Sega's policies at the amusement part and the level of self-regulation at its amusement operations, including safety procedures.

As reported earlier, police revealed that Joypolis employees had been using an unofficial manual for the skydiving simulator, when in truth, they were required to use the official manual provided by Sega Corporation.

Additional details concerning the ride, manuals, and accident were reported by Yomiuri Shimbun in the days following the accident: The "Viva! Skydiving" simulator tilts 60 degrees and moves up and down, creating the illusion of free fall. Riders are required to wear a seat belt around the waist and a harness over the shoulders. The official manual prohibits visitors from riding the skydiving simulator if they are less than 4 feet 6 inches tall, pregnant, or need assistantance walking. However, the unofficial manual states that visitors who insist on riding the attraction are allowed to after the simulator operators receive approval from a supervisor.

One of Tsubouchi's caretakers who accompanied him to Joypolis asked the part-time simulator operator if a person restricted to a wheelchair could ride the simulator. Even though the simulator's seat belt did not fit over Tsubouchi's waist, the accompanying safety harness could still be used. The part-time employee referred to the unofficial manual, contacted a supervisor for permission, and received approval. It has now been learned that the part-time worker never told the supervisor that the man was confined to a wheelchair, and the supervisor never asked about the man's condition.

The police now suspect that even though the seat belt could not fit around the man's waist, the remaining safety harness was not secured properly. Accounts say Tsubouchi was not sitting with his back pressed against the seat, leaving space between him and the harness, thus allowing him to fall from the simulator.

The part-time worker reportedly told police investigators, "I've heard people had been allowed to stay on the ride without wearing a seat belt. This hadn't resulted in accidents, so I let him ride." The investigation also revealed that previous Joypolis visitors rode the skydiving simulator wearing only the harness, and not the seat belt, in the past.

As reported earlier, Sega officials said they were unaware that an unofficial manual ever existed.

Last Friday, the Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transportation requested all local government authorities to caution amusement center operators in maintaining adequate safety protocol. The request also seeks amusement centers to verify that their operations are built in agreement with safety standards under Japan's Building Standard Law. There are more than 2,200 amusement facilities in Japan that house machines such as roller coasters, simulators, and carousels.

Meanwhile, the Sega Joypolis complex remains closed until further notice while the investigation into the tragic accident continues.

A Japanese-language statement on the Sega Joypolis Web site, which is operated by Sega, states that the complex has been closed and that the reopening date is undecided. Once the opening date is picked, an announcement will be made on the Web site.

Sega owns more than 470 amusement centers throughout Japan. A 2004 annual report from Sega revealed that Sega opened 16 medium-sized to large-sized amusement centers, while it closed a total of 40 by the end of that fiscal year.

The same report revealed that existing amusement centers operated by Sega did not meet 2004 sales targets due to the absence of "new product" and aggressive openings of other large amusement centers by competitors. Tokyo Joypolis, however, had reportedly continued to post positive results for the company, possibly leading company officials to keep the park running in spite of the track record of accidents.

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