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Firefighters rescue 66 riders from 400-foot Ferris wheel

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  • In this photo provided by Makayla Bell, the Ferris wheel known as the Orlando Eye is stopped on Friday in Orlando, Fla. Authorities say the 400-foot Ferris wheel stopped moving for more than 45 minutes, stranding riders aboard. (Makayla Bell via AP)

ORLANDO, Fla. » Firefighters safely evacuated all 66 riders stranded aboard The Orlando Eye after the 400-foot Ferris wheel that towers above central Florida abruptly halted Friday afternoon, authorities said.

Orange County Fire Rescue spokeswoman Kathleen Kennedy told The Associated Press no one was injured and everyone was taken off in an evacuation operation lasting three hours. She said the ride had initially stopped for more than 45 minutes.

Power was restored via a backup generator and firefighters on ladders clambered atop the enclosed capsules after each was slowly lowered to the ground, Kennedy said. She said the emergency crews had to reach in through a hatch and manually opened the doors of the gondolas because of limited power.

“All guests are safely evacuated,” she told AP by phone Friday evening, minutes after the last person was taken off.

Six elite rescue climbers with the squad who had trained by climbing the wheel before had gone to the scene but weren’t needed, Kennedy said. She noted they were part of a 40-person agency special operations team that had climbed the attraction in training even before the ride had opened, ready for any scenario.

“We’ve done live climbs … They had to climb the entire Eye,” she said, adding that “thankfully” the elite climbers didn’t need to be deployed on what she described as the tallest observation wheel on the East Coast.

Andrea Alava, a public relations manager for The Orlando Eye, issued a statement that operating systems for the attraction had shut as a safety precaution at about 3:45 p.m.

“The operating systems for the Orlando Eye indicated a technical default with the system that monitors the wheel position of the Orlando Eye. As a safety precaution, the attraction is designed to automatically shut down if communication with this system is interrupted,” the emailed statement said.

“Immediately following the default, the operations team began working to resolve the matter to allow guests to disembark the attraction. A backup system was employed that allowed capsules to be moved to the platform and opened manually,” it added.

The statement said Eye representatives kept up two-way visual and audio communication with the riders “to ensure their safety and comfort” and their priority was to ensure they safely disembarked. “With that completed, we are now focused on reinstating the systems and restoring full operations of the Orlando Eye.”

The Orlando Sentinel reported  that some of those stranded were tweeting from the ride that the ride had been stopping and starting after it initially halted. Photos tweeted by television stations showed firefighters using ladders to climb capsules as they helped people out.

“Yes we finally started moving! Hopefully we get down soon. They keep stopping hopefully to get people off.” Tweeted one rider about 5:40 p.m., the newspaper reported.

Kennedy said the last rider got down just after 7 p.m. Friday and that all were given precautionary medical checks but none required medical treatment.

The attraction’s website said the 400-foot wheel features fully enclosed and air-conditioned capsules and “provides breathtaking views of Central Florida in all directions” that include the Orlando skyline, nearby theme parks and distant Cape Canaveral on Florida’s Atlantic coast on clear days.

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