Telling people you fell off the Dragon Coaster usually gets the same reaction: disbelief. Patrizio Torregiani knows all about the skepticism, seeing nearly a quarter century’s worth of slack-jaws and raised eyebrows when he mentions the time in 1984 that he fell off the ride and lived to tell about it. Sometimes, he finds the story hard to believe himself. “It hits me once in a while; good material for TV, some people think I jumped off,” the Stamford, Conn. resident says. “God was on my side.”
Since it was built in 1929, the Dragon Coaster has been the main attraction of Rye Playland. Even today, the wooden coaster remains a Westchester staple. It’s a bit of a rite of passage for kids growing up here, breathlessly waiting for May when the county-owned amusement park opens. The first step is hoping you’ve grown tall enough in the last year to be allowed to ride; step two is swatting away the butterflies in your stomach and mustering up enough courage to tackle the legendary coaster.
For Therese Zaccagnino Marmion, a former Port Chester resident, it was the first rollercoaster she ever rode on and one that came complete with horror stories. “Right before I went on, a friend told me that someone’s hair got stuck when they went into the tunnel and it scalped them,” Marmion, 31, now a Philadelphia, Penn. resident, says. “Probably an urban legend.”
Torregiani, as ‘the guy who fell off the coaster and lived,’ has attained urban legend status himself – except this legend is true. Torregiani immigrated from Rome, Italy with his mother and siblings in the early 1980s and lived in Port Chester. He looked at himself as a thrill-seeker and daredevil. The Dragon Coaster was his local adrenaline fix. One night in the summer of 1984, Torregiani, then 17 years old, was thrown out of the ride around one of the many sharp turns. He hung on to the car and was dragged around until he banged his head on the tracks. Unconscious, Torregiani plunged several stories. Emergency responders, summoned after the ride ended, didn’t realize that Torregiani had landed on the roof of the nearby ride Ye Old Mill. “It took them a long time to find me because they were looking on the ground,” he says.
He was rushed to the now-defunct United Hospital in Port Chester. Bruised and battered, he later slipped into a coma caused by internal bleeding in his skull. His older sister Margherita Torregiani was then 19 years old. Ms. Torregiani and her mother Lucia, only in the country for several years, were still adjusting to speaking English and were presented with some very difficult decisions laid out by doctors. They wanted to drill a hole in Patrizio’s head to ease the swelling and bleeding that was putting pressure on his brain. Doctors were not sure he’d live, and if he did they feared there would be brain damage. “The doctors were not optimistic, at all,” Ms. Torregiani says.
As Torregiani lay in a coma, his family remained by his bedside. They befriended a family across the hall in a similar predicament when a young beach lifeguard fell from his chair onto the sand. The lifeguard, a teenage boy, did not make it out of the hospital. That tragedy only emphasized the miraculous nature of Torregiani’s recovery, when he emerged with injuries but no permanent brain damage. Today, he is able to walk and function normally, working at Greenwich Porsche as Internet Sales Manager. He’s even returned to ride the Dragon Coaster.
He eventually married Lucia Carlos, who like most was skeptical about Torregiani’s Dragon Coaster story. “I never imagined the capacity of his injuries…until he lost his hair and I could see the hole in his head where they inserted the tubes to drain his brain and keep the pressure off,” she says. Today, the couple has two children: Tazio, 11, and Dario, 10. Tazio, named after Italian racecar driver Tazio Nuvolari, now continues his father’s daredevil spirit as a kart racer. Torregiani, for his part, keeps his sense of humor about his near-tragedy at the amusement park. “Almost checked out,” he says. “But they didn’t let me in [to the afterlife].”
Adolescent and adult riders were known years ago to break the rules of safety, in a time before the safety bar on the cars was secured and unable to be opened mid-ride. Today, the safety bars are secured and passengers are told to remain seated and keep their hands in the ride. It’s good advice because anyone can end up an urban legend. And unlike Torregiani’s story, most of these legends don’t come with a happy ending.