ORLANDO, Fla. – A Kentucky boy who died after riding Walt Disney World’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster had heart defects, a preliminary autopsy released Friday showed.

Dr. Sara H. Irrgang, associate medical examiner for Orange and Osceola counties, also found no evidence of injuries. Her findings do not necessarily mean that 12-year-old Michael Russell died because of congenital heart abnormalities. Irrgang will look further and issue a final report in a few weeks.

Disney safety officials, accompanied by a state ride inspector, examined the indoor coaster at Disney-MGM Studios Thursday night and concluded it was safe. The ride reopened at 8 a.m. Friday.

Michael, who was vacationing with his family from Fort Campbell, Ky., boarded the short ride with his mother, father and younger brother late Thursday morning but was found limp as the ride finished. His father, Byron Russell, an Army Green Beret, immediately began CPR. Paramedics who arrived six minutes later took over and shocked Michael with a defibrillator. But the boy never revived and was pronounced dead at Celebration Hospital.

Michael’s parents told Orange County deputies on Thursday that he had annual physicals and was in good physical health.

His death is the seventh in 18 months involving people stricken at Walt Disney World attractions. In at least four of the other cases, autopsies blamed cardiovascular problems, including the most recent, Hiltrud Blumel, a 49-year-old German woman who died after riding Mission: Space April 11 at Epcot.

The Medical Examiner’s Office also released a final autopsy report Friday on Blumel’s death, saying she died of a stroke caused by high blood pressure.

Regarding Michael’s autopsy, the Medical Examiner’s Office offered no details about what sorts of abnormalities were discovered, how serious they could have been, or whether they might have been difficult to detect in routine physicals. Congenital heart abnormalities involve structural problems with the heart that are present at birth.

The Childrens Heart Foundation, which raises money to advance the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of congenital heart defects, says that they are America’s No. 1 birth defect, affecting nearly one out of every 100 births.

Not all are normally fatal. But Dr. Thomas Carson, an Orlando pediatric cardiologist specializing in congenital cardiology, said there are a number of defects that can go undetected in early life and cause death.

“A lot of these can slip by” routine medical exams, Carson said.

The most common cause of sudden death in children and young adults is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a group of heart conditions that can cause an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle. It can be detected through routine exams but can have a very subtle-sounding murmur that can be missed without an echocardiogram. He said as many as 1 in 50,000 people have the condition.

“A lot of them die,” Carson said. “It’s the most common sudden death in young adults.”

If such a condition is detected, medicines can significantly decrease the risk, he said.

Stress or excitement can cause what Carson called “events” among people with such conditions.

“A roller-coaster ride obviously can be pretty exciting. It can also be a loud noise, jumping into cold water,” he said. “It can be a number of common events as well.”

Rock “n’ Roller Coaster is famous for its exciting start, which propels the limousine-styled trains from 0 to 57 mph in 2.8 seconds. The ride, which lasts one minute and 22 seconds, also includes a rollover and a corkscrew.

On a Web site and in an early press release, Disney indicated that the ride creates forces up to five times that of gravity, but on Friday Disney said the correct maximum force is 4.2 Gs. Spokesman Jacob DiPietre said that figure came from a test by the American Standards for Testing and Materials, now known as ASTM International.

“During two periods that are approximately one second each, the vertical acceleration ranges between 3 and 4.2 Gs. Vertical accelerations are lower throughout the remainder of the ride,” DiPietre said, citing the organization’s report. “All the G forces that are experienced during the ride are well within the ASTM standards for amusement rides.”

Disney again expressed its sympathy and continued to offer assistance to the Russell family, issuing a statement Friday that read, “Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Russell family in the wake of their son’s passing.”


Earlier in the day Disney declared Rock “n’ Roller Coaster sound and reopened it after a 20-hour closure.

“Walt Disney World engineers and ride system experts completed a thorough inspection of the attraction overnight and found it to be operating properly. A representative from the state Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection observed the ride inspection and testing,” the company said in a written statement.

Friday morning the ride, which has drawn 36.6 million riders since it opened in 1999, had a 30-minute line, and no signs indicating anything had occurred.

Many visitors at Disney-MGM Studios, such as Catherine Leach of Louisiana, assumed the boy’s death was due to some sort of medical condition. But a few, such as Tony Taylor, 16, of Atlanta expressed uncertainties about the ride’s safety. And even some who assumed the ride is safe, such as Paul Stambaugh, 71, of Virginia suggested it should have been closed longer.

Felicia Mathis, 40, of Atlanta said she was in shock. “I think they should give it a day or so after the investigation is complete,” she said. “It shouldn’t be open the day after a child died.”

Margaret Wallace, 52, of Scotland was waiting outside as her 18-year-old daughter rode. She considers Disney rides well maintained and safe, and surmised that accidents happen.

“If it was me, I wouldn’t want it open,” she said. “But there are all these people that came to enjoy it and it’d be a shame to close it for them.”

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