Jose Carrion, Jr. Eric Rodriguez. Lenny Ruiz. Samuel Valentin Jr.
A picture of each young man adorns their plaque, wearing suits, posing for their class pictures, on the brink of futures that would never be realized.
The events that claimed their lives 30 years ago this week still casts a pall over this building; every class trip brings back memories of that tragic day. Friday, May 11, 1984, the day that a class trip to Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey turned into a nightmare.
We’ve all been in haunted rides at amusement parks and carnivals, so you can imagine what the Haunted Castle was like. Mannequins and skeletons, dark corridors, strobe lights, creepy music and loud noises, all designed to thrill and chill and disorient you.
You can easily imagine the fun that a group of teenagers away from home for the day would have in an amusement park and the screams of laughter a haunted castle would elicit.
Some of us don’t have to try too hard to imagine such a scene because at one time or another, in our youth, we were those kids. We all stood where they stood on that day, 30 years ago.
Great Adventure’s Haunted Castle was, in reality, 17 trailers lined up alongside each other with holes cut between them, creating a dark, twisting maze with no smoke alarms, no emergency lighting, and not enough emergency exits. What it became for these four young men, along with four other young souls, was a death trap.
It’s never been definitively determined how the fire actually started. Authorities at the time said the fire was accidentally started by someone using a lighter to navigate in the dark.
The smoke spread quickly down the narrow corridors and, at first, the kids inside thought it was just another part of the attraction. Of the 29 people inside, 14 of them sensed trouble or were near enough to an exit that they were able to escape unharmed.
Seven people needed to be treated for smoke inhalation. One of those lucky seven was close to unconsciousness and thought she was going to die when one of the employees inside the haunted castle rescued her. She had walked inside with one of her best friends who, despite being right by her side, was lost in the confusion and never made it out alive.
Days after the tragedy, hundreds of students from Franklin K. Lane marched down Jamaica Avenue to St. Thomas the Apostle for a memorial service. So many people turned up that they had to hook up speakers outside so they could hear the service. Our community was gutted.
This was only supposed to be a fun class trip, a yearly ritual that millions of kids across the nation take part in. How could something like this happen?
The tragedy led to tougher laws and regulations for amusement park rides, making them safer and better managed. But that would be of little solace to the friends and families of the eight young lives lost that day.
Near the front of Franklin K. Lane, in the shadows of the goal posts and the flag pole, there is a second memorial to Jose Carrion Jr., Eric Rodriguez, Lenny Ruiz and Samuel Valentin Jr., a cement plaque in the grass bearing their names.
The anniversary did not go unnoticed, and last week the memorial was decorated with flowers and tokens of remembrance and respect. Thirty years gone, but not forgotten.
Heavy rains washed the flowers away and this week, in the sunshine, the memorial was back to normal. Nearby, on the football field, students posed for class pictures, laughing and screaming and teasing each other. They were having fun, being kids, all of their futures ahead of them.
The way it is supposed to be.