Ride operator: I had no idea I could save them
THE senior ride operator on duty during the Thunder River Rapids tragedy has told a coroner he had no idea an alternate emergency stop button could have prevented the horrific disaster.
Peter Nemeth, one of Dreamworld's most experienced ride operators, was manning the central control panel when two rafts collided, leading to the deaths of four people in October 2016.
But appearing on Tuesday during an inquest at Southport Court, he told Coroner James McDougall he had never been told a second emergency stop button located a few metres away would shut down the conveyor belt a crucial five or six seconds earlier than the one right in front of him.
Police investigators have told the inquest the activation of the faster emergency stop button located next to the unloading station, which was manned by a young attendant on her first day working the ride, would almost certainly have prevented the tragedy.
Mr Nemeth's account of frantically pressing the button at his station "two or three times" before the raft collision was in contrast to evidence from forensic investigator Senior Constable Steven Cornish, who said it appeared no emergency button was activated until 10 seconds after the two rafts first made contact.
By that time, two passengers had already fallen into the conveyor belt below.
Mr Nemeth, whose legal representative Ralph Devlin, QC, launched an unsuccessful application to allow him to avoid questions that might incriminate himself - also told the coroner he only learnt that morning that three water pump shutdowns in one day would see a ride deactivated until further notice.
The ride's southern water pump had failed twice that day and Mr Nemeth became aware of a third failure as he ushered passengers into a raft moments before the tragedy.
Mr Nemeth said he then saw the raft carrying Kate Goodchild, Luke Dorsett, Roozi Araghi, Cindy Low and two children heading towards an empty raft stuck on the conveyor belt and immediately hit the stop button on his control panel "two or three times" to make sure it stopped before a collision.
But by the time the ride stopped, the raft carrying the six holiday-makers had tipped and was being dragged into the conveyor mechanism as passengers exited.
Under cross-examination by barrister Matthew Hickey, appearing for the family of Ms Low, Mr Nemeth said he would have rushed to the station of young attendant Courtney Williams if he knew her stop button would have shut down the ride sooner.
Confusion over the function of various emergency buttons has emerged as a key factor in the opening two days of the inquest, with responsibility for the shutdown of the ride left to the senior operator at the central control panel, even though that button takes seven to nine seconds to stop the conveyor belt.
A similar button near the unloading platform manned by Ms Williams shuts down the conveyor in just two seconds, but in a memo sent just a week before the tragedy, staff were warned against pressing it unless "the main control panel cannot be reached".
Mr Hickey said he was not being critical of Mr Nemeth, who police said was panicked and not sure which button to press, and asked if he knew the button closest to Ms Williams would stop the ride sooner. "I was not aware of that," he said.
Asked if he would have run to Ms Williams' station to activate the emergency button if he had that prior knowledge, he said he would have.
"But you didn't do that because you didn't know it was possible," Mr Hickey said.
Mr Nemeth replied: "Yes, that is correct."
Appearing for Mr Nemeth, Mr Devlin had earlier made an application for his client to be allowed "privilege" not to answer questions that could incriminate himself.
However, Mr McDougall said it was "overwhelmingly in the public interest for Mr Nemeth to give evidence" and for even incriminating answers to be obtained.
Mr Nemeth told the court his day started manning the Tower of Terror and Giant Drop before taking a lunch break about 12.45pm.
He then headed to the Thunder River Rapids, passing a co-worker who mentioned there had been issues with the ride's water pump. "If it happened one more time we would have to stop operating the ride for the day," he said.
Mr Nemeth told the hearing he joined Dreamworld in 2012 and was immediately taken by the "culture of fun".
Asked about what he learnt during his induction training, he said "it was about the culture, the excitement, the fun for the guests".
Mr Nemeth started work on the sedate Big Red Car attraction for young children, but rose through the ranks to become one of the park's top ride operators who was also entrusted with performing regular safety audits.
"I did every single ride in Dreamworld - except for a couple of the smaller (children's) ones, everything else in the park. I was in the top 10 operators at Dreamworld."
Mr Nemeth will return to give evidence on Wednesday. Ms Williams is due to give evidence next. The inquest will run until the end of next week before adjourning to later this year.
DEATH RIDE LIKE A 'TICKING TIME BOMB'
IT WAS the family favourite ride deemed so sedate a two-year-old could ride it.
But Dreamworld's Thunder River Rapids ride was a ticking time bomb that even senior ride operators said was "the most stressful" in the park, a coroner has been told.
After more than 15 years of near misses and safety concerns, the ride was shut permanently after the October 2016 deaths.
Giving evidence yesterday at a Gold Coast inquest into their deaths, ride operator Peter Nemeth said the Thunder River Rapids belied its reputation as one of the most gentle attractions in the park where families squealed with delight down a series of rolling river rapids before slowly climbing a conveyor belt and coming to a gentle stop.
"It was the most stressful of all the rides," said Mr Nemeth, one of Dreamworld's most experienced ride supervisors.
"(Because) there were much more (sic) things to look out for than any other ride.
"You needed a greater degree of concentration.
"I had to look for the (water) pumps, the air pressure, electrical issues, three different queue lines, making sure everyone behaves themselves.
"There are many things to pay attention to at all times."
He also said the noise from the pumps and music added another degree of complexity.
Police investigators have been critical of the ride's operating methodology, which left it up to individual operators to notice drops in water level and manually shut down the pumps and conveyor belt.
During cross-examination by barrister for the Low family Matthew Hickey, Mr Nemeth was asked whether any automatic controls would have made his job easier.
"Yes, of course," he replied.
The inquest also heard details of a 2001 incident where an empty raft flipped, leaving staff "shuddering" to think what might have happened if people had been on-board.