Roller CoasterTHE MIDWEST IS OFTEN SPOKEN OF AS IF EVERY BODY THERE WERE SANE, but the weather makes up for it. The weather often changes its mind, drastically, within minutes. On the road through Ohio, you pass towns like Berlin and Milan, that really should be somewhere else; take the exit for Edison’s birthplace, and head north to a sign that says “Sandusky Welcomes You: America’s Roller Coast.” Then, as you head toward Cedar Point amusement park, on Lake Erie, crossing the slim causeway over Sandusky Bay, you can see bright blue sky, huge lake-country thunder-heads, the cars ahead of you hydroplaning on the blacktop, and the pleasure craft on either side already taking advantage of the latest break in the storm.

When the causeway doglegs and all of a sudden you spot sixteen roller coasters in the same place, it can take your breath away. Manhattan has a great sky-line, but when you see it for the first time, you can’t say, “Everything out there I’m going to the top of—today.” At Cedar Point you can, and you can do it in your bathing suit, screaming, with a gang of friends. There’s one rule, though: no spike jewelry. The main reason for the rule is Top Thrill Dragster, which is four hundred and twenty feet tall and reaches its maximum speed of a hundred and twenty m.p.h. in less than four seconds. At that rate of acceleration, the flesh on your face begins to flatten and spread back toward your ears, tears stream out of your eyes, and your average ten-pound head feels like it weighs forty-five pounds, making it difficult to dodge any spike earrings or septum spikes or spiked tribal chokers that might fly loose.

Top Thrill Dragster is one of a new generation of roller coasters that generate their own publicity by setting world records—the tallest, the fastest, the longest, the loopiest, the highest g-force, the most time upside down. Chains like Six Flags, the country’s largest, with twenty-nine parks, and Cedar Fair, which owns Cedar Point and eleven other parks, have been engaged in their own version of the arms race, putting up one big-ticket coaster after another in the hope of luring in riders. Cedar Point, which holds several records, has become the most famous front in that war. But by some measures Six Flags is ahead: eight of the twenty fastest coasters in the country are at one or another of its parks, and all of them have opened in the past five years.

Coaster enthusiasts are calling it a new golden age, but today’s high-speed steel coasters don’t have a lot in common with the old wooden twisters of the first building boom, back in the nineteen-twenties. Top Thrill Dragster is typical of the extreme nature of the latest rides. Once you’re locked into your seat—with a simple one-person lap bar in cheerful yellow—the car moves slowly along the track and parks there, leaving you to look out and up for much too long, maybe fifteen seconds, feeling the high-decibel rumble of a revving dragster engine. Yellow, red, and green lights flash in sequence down the tower—they call it the Christmas tree—and you’re off Under normal operating conditions, one trainload of eighteen passengers goes every ninety seconds, straight up, with a pause at the top—a brief lovely view of the bay and the park, far below—followed by a dive straight down, a two-hundred-and-seventy-degree barrel roll at seventy miles an hour. The whole thing’s over in twenty-five seconds of almost pure g-force.

When it opened last year, Top Thrill Dragster replaced the three-year-old Millennium Force, some three hundred yards to its west, as the country’s tallest and fastest. The difference between the two is a fair measure of the direction of the coaster wars. Millennium Force has its terrifying touches—before launch, a cable block that pulls the train up the three-hundred-and-ten-foot lift bill slides down the track toward you, frictionless as a guillotine—but after the first huge eighty-degree drop the train glides and swoops through a succession of steep hills and smooth, sharply banked curves. On Millennium Force you feel like a bird. On Top Thrill Dragster you feel like a veal chop.

Nobody at the Walt Disney compound in Glendale, California, the headquarters of the company’s theme-park “Imagineers,” takes advantage of the division’s relaxed dress code more than Joe Rohde. On a typical day in June, he wore sandals, amulets from Kathmandu, and a light cotton shirt with yeti footprints which he bought in Bali. His beard was trimmed in a style just shy of topiary, and his left ear was decorated with a collection of sculpted earrings so heavy as to turn his earlobe into a low-hanging pendulum. It registered his excitement as he talked about Expedition Everest, the new roller coaster being built in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, in Florida. The two-hundred-foot-tall coaster, expected to open in 2006, will reportedly cost Disney a hundred million dollars. “Expedition Everest is about the sanctity of nature and the limits of human encroachment,” Rohde said. On a shelf behind him he kept a test patch of matted white fur and the skull of a gigantopithecus, a ten-foot primate, the largest on the geological record, that became extinct around five hundred thousand years ago, because the ride is also about a face-to-face encounter with an angry yeti. “The premise is that we are mountaineers and trekkers—we are Expedition Everest—and we are showing upon this day, in this little Tibetan village on the outskirts of the imaginary kingdom of Anandapur, where entrepreneurs have taken an old train that used to work the tea plantations in the foothills and rerouted it to run through the mountains to the Everest region, which we can see peeking through the path, in the distance.”

On a typical Disney coaster, storytelling takes precedence over brute g-forces. The big technological innovation in Expedition Everest—a high-speed track switch that allows the coaster to come to a quick stop at the top and then careen backward on a different path—owes its creation to the ride’s first plot twist. The yeti, who, according to Rohde, is serious about the sanctity of the mountains, tears up the tracks: the ride dead-ends on a scene of twisted metal at the edge of a cliff As the riders hear thunder mixing with the yeti’s roar, the train, as though possessed by fear, begins a terrified retreat, although, thanks to another track switch, it soon returns to face the terror—and finally the yeti himself—head on.

Rohde, who has directed the design and theme schemes for Animal Kingdom since it was first conceived, in 1990 (before that, he taught art history and theatrical set design at a California prep school), admits that all this could be taken as a flanking maneuver in the roller-coaster wars. The type of rides he calls “ball-busting hell coasters, like Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster, are meant to appeal to the twelve -to-twenty-four-year-old market, a particularly thrill-seeking demographic that Disney largely concedes to its competitors. Rohde and his team design with children, parents, and grandparents in mind.

“So, in the context of Animal Kingdom, which is this big narrative park with big ideas about nature and humanity and animals and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, this becomes a very deliberate effort to introduce kinetics, to introduce motion and noise and a prominent landmark and all that signifies into this park.” He interrupted himself with a smile. “I’m sorry. I always end up sounding like a semiotics professor. Might as well. No one else is going to take our work


Expedition Everest is a mammoth undertaking, on the scale of a block-buster movie. Last year, Disney’s theme-park division invested more than half a billion dollars in capital improvements, with the help of $1.8 billion in admissions. (Amusement parks in general brought in three hundred and twenty million visitors and more than ten billion dollars.) The ride can, and in all likelihood will, handle more than twenty thousand riders a day. This is the big-ticket coaster’s drawback, apart from the approximately one-in-three-hundred-and-fifty-million chance of spectacular death: the lines, which can make death seem like the better alternative.

Disney has developed a “Fast-Pass” system so that riders can opt for a ticket that tells them when to return, based on a complicated calculation of number of riders, time of day, weather, schedule of competing attractions, etc. Many people prefer to wait in line. Some do so, presumably, because it provides a 1u1i in the day when children are not asking for an Eeyore plushie or a Princess Fantasy Teapot Castle. (Disney shops are near exits, perhaps to capitalize on the rider’s lightheadedness.) But Rohde’s team has taken elaborate measures to make the wait part of the experience, moving the line the length of a city block past ersatz Nepalese buildings, a tea plantation, and a semi-crackpot yeti museum. “It’s as much about the setup as it is about the ride,” Rohde said.

Rohde showed me a sculpted foam maquette of the ride, with the recognizable profile of Everest lurking behind a mountainous foreground, coursing with rivers (which will involve actual water) and glacial ice (painted concrete). His colleague Mark Mesko, the chief coaster engineer, told me that he took great pleasure in the invisibility of his hundred-thousand-pound track switches. “This had to be done quietly, behind the guests,” he said. “It was something we had to invent that we didn’t even want them to know existed.” For a similar reason—so that ridders won’t see where the Himalayan mountain range hits the ground—a landscape director has planted a wall of swaying bamboo along the edge of the ride. Later, I was shown a 4-D construction simulation program, which followed the coaster track as the structural-steel grid, coded in distractingly fanciful Hi-Liter colors, flicked rapidly by. The program, which, with all of its data, took about twenty minutes to load, was developed by Disney at great expense as a way of heading off costly construction delays. Expedition Everest will be the first new attraction to rely on the technology

The project manager for Expedition Everest on site in Florida is David Wilson. Before coming to Disney, Wilson helped run the nuclear reactors on Navy submarines. On a visit to the construction site, as we stood on the concrete foundation looking up at the ride’s skeleton, he told me that learning to trust the program required a certain leap of faith. There were spots, he said, sixty feet up in the air, where the track ran disconcertingly near to the steel and concrete of the mountain. “The first time I came out here myself and saw how close it was going to hit, I called my design manager and said, Are you sure this is going to work?’ And he looked at that particular area on our model and he said, ‘No, no, that will pass by four inches.’ “Wilson laughed. “Ever since then, I don’t expect there to be any issues. And there haven’t been any.

T here is general agreement that the country’s first roller coaster was the Switch Back Railway; the debate concerns which one. The Mauch Chunk— Summit Hill and Switch Back Railway, an eighteen-mile gravity railroad, was built in 1827 to carry coal in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Forty-five years later, when the big rail carriers rendered it obsolete, Josiah White turned the Switch Back into a thrill ride suitable for the Victorian era: you could bring a picnic. The other Switch Back Railway, which covered a gentle six-hundred-foot circuit of bunny hills at a speed of six m.p.h., was built at Coney Island in 1884, and was a tourist attraction from the start. At a nickel a ride, it earned back its fifteen-hundred -dollar construction costs in three days. Its inventor, La Marcus Thompson, became the first coaster entrepreneur, building fifty variations on his creation in the next four years.

Eleven years later and a few blocks away, Paul Boynton opened Sea Lion Park, the first enclosed amusement park, which was quickly followed by Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland, whose profligate use of incandescent lights made Coney Island visible from thirty miles out to sea. Thompson’s competition soon offered better and more extreme versions of the gravity-driven ride, including one called Flip Flap, the country’s first looping coaster, which debuted at Sea Lion Park in 1895. its successor, Loop the Loop, proved so dangerous that eventually people rode for free; what you paid for was a seat in the grandstand, where you had a chance to see the riders’ necks snapping.

Technical improvements, especially the addition of a safety bar that kept the cars from leaping off the tracks, allowed for greater speed and sharper turns, and roller- coaster construction exploded. By the late nineteen-twenties, there were more than fifteen hundred wooden coasters (but very few loops) at piers and pleasure gardens and trolley parks. Many had to fit into small and oddly shaped beach-front plots, so the designers came up with a whole list of “stunts”—side shakers, shimmies, camelbacks, kangaroo hops, fan curves, swoop curves, jump tracks, figure-eights, and spiral dips. Often the rides made use of advances in other areas of mechanics: then as now a roller coaster was an engineer’s way of telling jokes.

The jokes could have a cruel streak. Harry G. Traver, who built many of the land- mark coasters of the day, made this brand of humor his specialty. The crowds lined up for it. Every morning, maintenance workers at the Bobs, the Traver Engineering Company coaster at Chicago’s Riverview Park, searched beneath the ride for the wigs, eyeglasses, earrings, wallets, and false teeth that had fallen out the night before. One drunken sailor, thrown off the ocean-side curve on the Cyclone Racer, a ride that Traver built on a pier in Long Beach, California, simply swam back to shore and demanded a full ride. Another Traver attraction, the Lightning, at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, killed a rider on the second day of operation and inspired a local folk remedy for unwanted pregnancy: Take her on the Lightning.”

A big breakthrough in coaster design came in 1959, when Disney introduced the first steel—track coaster, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, at Disneyland. In 1975, the Corkscrew at Knott’s Berry Farm, with its spiral loops, and the vertical-looping Revolution, at Six Flags Magic Mountain, pioneered steel-loop technology, boosting park attendance. But, despite this, the model of innovation has been one of steady evolution rather than punctuated equilibrium—a little faster, a little higher, a little steeper. One effect of the incremental nature of these changes is that there hasn’t been a major rethinking of the roller coaster.

The great old woodies fell into disre-pair after the war. There were plenty of reasons for the neglect: television, hooligans, Disneyland, white flight, urban development. A preservationist movement began in the late seventies, spearheaded by the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE). In 1986, ACE helped relocate Wild One, an abandoned 1917 wooden classic from Paragon Park, in Hull, Massachusetts, to Six Flags America in Largo, Maryland, but they were too late to save any of the old Traver terror machines. Still, the organization has grown from its original group—three guys who met at a coaster marathon on the Rebel Yell, at King’s Dominion, in Virginia—into a nationwide nonprofit with a membership of more than eight thousand.

Lisa Scheinin, a deputy medical examiner with the Los Angeles County coroner’s office and an ACE member, has ridden, according to her calculations, nine hundred and eight coasters in twenty-three countries, on six continents. Her current favorite is a year-old wooden coaster in Goteborg, Sweden. That one she likes for its “re-ride-ability” and “air time “—brief moments of negative g-force at the top of a hill when a rider is thrown into the air. She renewed her wedding vows on the loading platform of a coaster (subject of the sermon: marriage is like a roller coaster). “People think because I’m a doctor I should like something more intellectual,” she says. “But what I like is a really nice coaster.”

Probably nobody has logged more coaster time than Richard Rodriguez, who set so many world records for the longest coaster ride that the “Guinness Book of World Records” finally changed its rules. In 2000, he did two thousand straight hours, or more than eighty-three days, round the clock. To prepare for his marathons, Rodriguez pads out the car he’ll ride in. He sets up a curtain so that he can answer the calls of nature. He brings creams to avoid wind-burn, because at this point his marathons are “the equivalent of driving from Key West to northern Washington on a highway with your head sticking out the window;” he said. “But one of the most difficult physical things is when you get five young girls riding in front of you and in back of you,” he told me. “And what do they do when they go downhill? They scream. Have you ever heard a young girl or boy, ten or eleven or twelve? They have enormous lung power, and when they scream in unison as they’re going down the hill, it’s nasty. But screaming is a life passage.. They , we got to do it.”

How safe are roller coasters? Statistically, the news isn’t especially alarming. From 1987 to 2000, an average of 4.5 riders died on amusement-park rides every year, according to the Consumer Protection Safety Commission. Under the standard deaths-per-rider-miles formula, amusement-park rides appear to be slightly safer than cars but more than ten times as dangerous as trains, planes, or buses. But the picture is murkier for non-fatal injuries. In 1981, in a one-sentence amendment to the federal budget, President Ronald Reagan awarded “fixed-site” amusement parks (but not lower-budget travelling ones) freedom from federal oversight. The federal “roller-coaster loophole” remained largely unchallenged until a string of four fatal accidents in one week in August, 1999 prompted Representative Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, to introduce a bill to return regulatory powers to the C.PS.C. Markey’s efforts face a Catch-22: he needs reliable injury reports to show that the agency needs the power to gather reliable injury reports. At this point, he says, he gains supporters one at a time, every time a congressman has a constituent die at an amusement park. “The passage of my bill is inevitable,” Markey told me. “The only question is: How many deaths will it take before we reach a majority of Congress?”

Meanwhile, the C.P.S.C. has no power to compel parks to file accident information. The agency only estimates injury rates using emergency-room reports submitted by a sample of a hundred hospitals across the country. In 2000, according to Markey’s office, lobbyists for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions successfully maneuvered to get a hospital that was near Six Flags Great Adventure, in New Jersey, removed from this pool, on the ground that it skewed the sample. (I.A.A.P.A. denies pressuring the agency.) The result was that the number of injuries for 2001 appeared to be twenty-one per cent lower than that for 2000—a drop that the lobby then heralded on its Web site. Reports issued by the National Safety Council are no clearer: its “Injury Insights” is a sunny document, assembled by I.A.A.P.A. from figures submitted anonymously by its members, without independent review by the N.S.C. It includes a list of activities whose g-forces equal or exceed those experienced on coasters, such as bouncing on a pogo stick (4.5 g’s), sneezing (3.9 or getting hit by a pillow (28.1 g’s). The industry argues that federal regulation would be a waste of taxpayer dollars: the government has neither the resources nor the expertise to police the rides. They say that the rides are already governed by stringent standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials, standards that set the pattern for state and local legislation; this is how building codes work. But the standards are voluntary and eight states have no such laws in place. Texas relies on the honor system. Florida grants special exemptions to parks with more than a thousand employees—in other words, to Disney, Universal, and Anheuser-Busch, which together operate seven of the country’s ten biggest parks, all in Florida.

There are also unsettling events that don’t make it into the safety stastics. Last week, at Six Flags Great Adventure, twenty riders were trapped—eight upside down, twelve sideways—when electrical problems stopped cars on Batman and Robin: The Chiller. It took forty minutes to get them down. Kathy Fackler, whose five-year-old son, David, lost the toes on his left foot when he climbed out of a car that hadn’t fully stopped on Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland, has made compulsory accident reporting her mission; her Web site,, is the leading advocate for federal regulation and child-safe ride design. At the time of her son’s accident, Disneyland enjoyed an autonomy comparable to Disney World’s in Florida. “What really bothered me was that no one had to know about the accident,”

Fackler said. “The park was totally in control. It’s almost like you don’t live in

America. It was that creepy.

Thanks in large part to her testimony five years ago, California enacted model legislation requiring such reports. The first ride closed by the California law was the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin, at Disneyland, after a four-year-old boy, Brandon Zucker, suffered permanent brain damage when he fell from his car and was crushed and dragged by the car behind in 2000. (The Zuckers have settled with Disney.) But Fackler believes that the industry has long known about a variety of other child-safety hazards. Peter Speth, another critic of the industry, is a serial whistle-blower—just the contentious type to relish a battle against a ten-billion -dollar industry. Unfortunately, he has a felony conviction for witness tampering and has surrendered his medical license for the duration of the appeals process. Depending on which these roller coasters, if it were a high-risk thing like tobacco and lung cancer, there would be real associations in the medical literature. But what you find in the literature are these spotty case reports. And despite there being so many riders, nobody’s saying, ‘Gee, look at this, a new roller coaster and four subdurals this week!’ Or, ‘You know, I saw three vertebral-artery dissections on this Six Flags site near my emergency room!’ That data is not happening.”

O ne of the suggestions in the Six Flags study was that the researchers should put a “dummy instrumented with a six degrees of freedom accelerometer” (i.e., a crash-test dummy) on the rides to determine the range of rider head movements. Greg Hale, the chief safety officer for Walt Disney parks and resorts, confirmed the implicit revelation behind the recommendation: rides often debut with few or no trials using modern crash-test dummies. “When you start putting the accelerometers into an object that can move around, it’s very hard to get repeatable results,” he said. “You don’t always need to go that far unless you’re getting into a new area of forces that you can’t mathematically model.”

Since even in this latest generation, extreme roller coasters seldom make much more than a marginal increase in speed, height, or g-force, it’s largely left to live riders to demonstrate what happens to real heads on a roller coaster. In the coaster boom of the twenties, engineers relied on the crudest form of trial and error: if somebody died, they tried to fix the problem. Nearly a century later, trial and error is still a necessary part of the engineering process. “It’s not like nobody in California was aware that something had happened in Massachusetts,” Hale said, referring to the death of a fifty-five-year-old man with cerebral palsy who was thrown out of the Superman Ride of Steel at Six Flags New England, in May. “If there’s a design change necessary, there’s a requirement that the manufacturer send a bulletin to every owner of that ride, whether they re in Europe or Asia or any state in the U.S.”

So far, ride designers have avoided confronting the actual limits of coaster engineering, or of human endurance. But, according to Daniel Kellet the general manager of Cedar Point, the coaster wars may soon be coming to an end. “We may be getting to a crossroads,” he said. “Because how high can you go? I’m not saying somebody won’t go up higher and faster; but in terms of height and speed and angle of approach, how do you top Top Thrill Dragster?” Keller, the sartorial opposite of Joe Rohde—in a stiff white shirt, gold tie, and braided-leather suspenders—is an amusement-park lifer. He met his wife when he was working at a Cedar Point cotton-candy stand in 1971, and he still likes to take a roller-coaster ride in the morning in place of a cup of coffee. Sure, he said, as he looked out of his office window at Kiddy Kingdom and the Wicked Twister beyond, “there may be a manufacturer that will come up tomorrow and say, ‘We got a great concept on an eight-hundred-foot roller coaster.’ We’d certainly want to take a look at it.” But he seemed to view it as unlikely. “I think the next ride we do could be a new, very different sort of ride. It’s a challenge for our industry.”

The Coney Island Cyclone sits on the same seaside plot as the old Switch Back Railway once did, at the corner of Surf Avenue and West Tenth Street, in Brooklyn. Ever since the Albert family, who own Astroland amusement park, next door, took over the lease thirty years ago, Gerry Menditto has kept it running. “He can tell if something’s wrong from the sounds of the roller coaster the rhythm of the wheels on the track,” Carol Hill Albert says. “He’s like a doctor with a stetho-scope.” Menditto’s knowledge is more hands-on than seat-of-the-pants: he has never ridden the Cyclone, because of the first drop. “To myself; I say, ‘Better you than me,’ “he told me as we stood looking up from the bottom of the eighty-five- foot drop. “I don’t even like elevators that go too fast.”

Menditto grew up a few blocks away on Neptune Avenue, and any tour of the Cyclone’s machinery—the ten-foot bull wheel that drives the chain lift, the 1927 hand-brake system underneath the loading station—inevitably includes introduct-ions to his crew “Here’s another guy grew up with us,” Menditto says, pointing to Danny Mezzo, a slim sixty-two-year-old in well-pressed shorts. “He owned the best pastry shop in Brooklyn.” “The guy ruined my life!” Fat Anthony Marinaccio, a front brakeman on the Cyclone, says. Marinaccio, who blames his hearing problems on all the screaming he’s endured since 1975, doesn’t ride the Cyclone either. “I can’t fit into it anymore, he says. “I won’t lie to you.

The Cyclone wasn’t the most terrifying roller coaster of its era. It wasn’t even the most terrifying one named the Cyclone—that title would probably go to the Cyclone at Palisades Amusement Park, in New Jersey, or the Revere Beach Cyclone. But with its steep first drop and sharp crash landings, its tight fifty-m.p.h. turns, its baffling crossovers under the steel-and-wood trestlework, it wasn’t far off, and while its namesakes fell—in 1972 and 1974, respectively—the Coney Island Cyclone survived, just barely. in 1975, William Conway, the director of the New York Zoological Society which ran the Aquarium next door, campaigned for its demolition, calling it a “clear choice between honky-tonk and culture.” The Alberts saved the ride, but the job of running it hasn’t always been a pleasure, especially on hot, crowded summer nights back in the seventies. According to Charles Denson, a historian of Coney Island, the Homicides, a street gang whose members wore crushed black hats stolen from Hasidic Jews, set up their headquarters a few blocks west, and they often held an open-air disco, known as the Zoo, on the nearby streets. “To be in the amusement business on July 4th and pray for rain?” Menditto says, shaking his head. “Now there’s no more problems where you got to call in police.”

But, as increasingly elaborate steel coasters come to market, the Cyclone holds its own as one of the last monuments of what recklessness used to feel like. I watched a few loads of riders angling for their favorite spot: front seat gets the clearest view and greatest psychological terror; last seat gets the biggest whiplash and hardest, fastest ride. One father; sitting with his son in the front car for the boy’s first ride, pointed at a guy on Menditto’s crew who was holding a hand-operated lever to stop the cars as they came into the station. “See that?” the father said. “No computer, no nothing. Just pull the big-ass arm.”

Danny Mezzo took my glasses when I went on the Cyclone. The ride can be fast in the morning, from the diesel fuel they use to rinse the sea salt off the tracks, but not as fast as it gets at the end of a hot day, when the mist first starts to settle and the trains skim wildly around the tracks. But it was fast enough. The signature of an old wooden coaster is not raw miles per hour but rough speed in the curves. If you’re riding alone, you slide across the seat and slam into the wooden sides (or you stop yourself half-way and later wonder why your shoulder hurts). If you’re riding with someone, you crush up against each other in a most companionable way. And with twenty-six hundred feet of trackjammed into that tight five-hundred-by-seventy-five-foot lot, the tricks came so fast that I never finished screaming, or laughing. It was one long scream, or laugh, or both, the whole way. It was the first roller coaster I’d been on that was anything like an emotional roller coaster.•



August 30, 2004, (pgs. 48-55)

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