Matthew Howard Sr. and his family were leaving Six Flags Great Escape on Saturday night when his youngest daughter, Hayzel, stopped to dance with park staff to “Party Rock Anthem.”
A short distance away, Howard saw what he thought were long legs dangling from the Sky Ride gondola attraction, but he realized it was actually a young girl, hanging from the ride.
Howard and his daughter, Leeann Winchell, made their way underneath the gondola car and called out to the girl, trying to calm her down and reassure her they’d catch her. Moments later, the girl dropped 25 feet, into their arms. She sustained no serious injuries.
“God dropped an angel, and I caught her,” said Howard, a 47-year-old Schenectady resident.
Emergency responders arrived at the Queensbury theme park about 8:05 p.m. Saturday after receiving a call that a 14-year-old girl fell from the Sky Ride. She was taken to Glens Falls Hospital, and later Albany Medical Center, where she remained Sunday.
Recalling the incident Sunday afternoon, Winchell, 21, said it still breaks her heart to watch the videos, which surfaced online Saturday evening and have since received millions of views.
An initial investigation determined everything on the ride was in proper working order, and the state Department of Labor cleared the Sky Ride for operation Sunday morning. However, it remained closed Sunday while the park conducts an internal review, spokeswoman Rebecca Wood said.
Howard and his family took a trip to the Great Escape on Saturday, a common occurrence for the group, which often buys season passes. On their way toward the exits, his daughter Hayzel, 4, stopped to dance with Six Flags staff.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been there,” Howard said.
He saw the girl — a resident of Greenwood, Delaware, who has not been identified — clinging to the ride and to a younger relative also in the car. Video shows the gondola continued moving for a short time before a park attendant signaled to an operator to stop the ride.
A crowd began to form, with dozens of people capturing the moment on video.
Even Howard took out his phone at first, he admitted, but quickly handed it to one of his three daughters.
“I just couldn’t stand there,” he said. “I thought if I got in there, at least we could do something.”
Howard and Winchell were two of only a few people who positioned themselves to catch the girl. Another man climbed into a nearby tree to see if he could reach the girl. When it became clear that wasn’t an option, he began talking to the girl to try to calm her, and to clear branches out of her path should she fall.
Howard called out, trying to assure the girl he’d catch her if she dropped, unsure if she would trust him, he said.
On video, the girl can be seen trying to wriggle free, her neck apparently stuck in the lap bar. She dropped into the crowd seconds later, with Howard and Winchell breaking her fall.
“I didn’t care if I got hurt, this young girl has a whole life to live ahead of her,” said Winchell, who lives in Colonie. “I just wanted to make sure she was safe.”
The young girl appeared to be unconscious as she was taken away by medical personnel, first to be treated at the park, and later at the hospital.
Howard, who can be seen in the video wearing a white T-shirt, was knocked to the ground by the impact. He got up a bit dizzy, and was taken to Glens Falls Hospital for testing, but was released after about an hour, he said.
In hindsight, Howard suggested the ride should not have been stopped. The girl was hanging on well enough he felt they could have left it running for her to make it to a nearby platform, about a football field away, he said.
However, he and Winchell acknowledged it was likely difficult for park staff to communicate quickly in the heat of the moment.
“There’s a lot of negativity going on about this, that it’s the girl’s fault, it’s Six Flags’ fault, it’s security’s fault,” Howard said. “Everybody did what they could. I don’t want to see security get blamed. Who gets trained to have someone jump into their arms?”
All rides have a standard evacuation plan, said Wood, the park spokeswoman. Each spring, in partnership with local emergency personnel, the park conducts an evacuation drill on the Sky Ride, she said.
“Every situation is unique and requires the appropriate time and tools for the evacuation,” Wood said in a statement. “We are reviewing our internal procedures to ensure the safety and security of our guests and team members.”
The Sky Ride is described as “a mellow-paced ride with an awesome view,” reaching heights of more than 20 feet, according to the Great Escape website.
Howard and Winchell stopped by Albany Medical Center on Sunday morning to check on the girl, they said. They didn’t stay long, but said she was in some pain, but good spirits overall.
They’re hopeful the public will leave the young girl and her family alone to heal, they said.
“At the end of the day, whatever happened, we saved this girl’s life, and now she’s got a second chance,” Winchell said.