Ghost Town gunslinger wounded during staged fight
State officials are investigating Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park after a piece of shrapnel maimed a longtime, well-known Wild West gunfighter during one of the park’s staged gunfights.
An anonymous complaint made with the N.C. Department of Labor alleges that the Maggie Valley business had no medical personnel on-site to tend to the gunfighter’s injury and no water available for the injured person to wash the blood from his hands. Ghost Town Owner Alaska Presley has denied the allegations and claims that she fired the injured employee.
“None of this negative talk is going to hurt Ghost Town because I have worked too hard,” Presley said. It’s just a few people “trying to cause a problem.”
Officials with the Department of Labor will spend anywhere from a few weeks to six months interviewing witnesses and the victim and reviewing policies to determine if Ghost Town violated any safety or health standards. The investigation is limited to the accident, but officials could broaden the investigation if necessary.
Depending on the outcome, the amusement park could face up to a $7,000 fine.
‘A freak accident’
Ghost Town has had its share of troubles during the years — a decline in visitors, foreclosure, bankruptcy, botched attempts to re-open, failed state ride inspections and construction delays. However, recently, it seemed like the amusement park’s luck might have improved. After a month of holdups, Ghost Town finally opened on July 4 with the Wild West mock-up town, three kiddy rides, zip line and chairlift all operational.
But two days later, gunfighter and longtime Ghost Town champion Robert Bradley was injured during one of the park’s famous staged gunfights.
Like always, Bradley, a.k.a. the Apache Kid, stood in the middle of the Wild West Town facing his enemy. His two compatriots were “killed,” and he was left weaponless. All that remained was for Bradley to fall to the ground and play dead after his enemy took him out. Then, he and the other “dead” gunfighters would rise and take their bows.
The gunfighters use blanks, obviously, but this time, for some strange reason, the shot hurt.
“It felt like a mule had kicked me in the leg,” Bradley said. Nonetheless, “I went ahead and did my fall and rolled over where nobody could see me.”
Bradley was puzzled. His band of gunfighters were like brothers, having worked together for years, and in Bradley’s mind it wasn’t plausible someone had intentionally put a real bullet in the gun.
Yet, something from the shotgun had flown more than 25 feet and lodged itself about 1.5 inches deep into Bradley’s right thigh, according to a police report.
“It left a hole about the size of my little finger,” Bradley said.
When he stood up, his pants were sticky and wet. It was blood, a lot of blood.
“It soaked all the way and was leaving a trail,” Bradley said.
At first, his fellow gunfighters didn’t realize he was hurt, but once they did, everyone went into stealth mode — trying to help Bradley yet shield kids and spectators from seeing him.
“We have to take care not to scare the kids for real,” said a gunfighter known as Preacher.
They brought him into Bradley’s office. One man took off his shirt and used it as a tourniquet around his right thigh. Bradley said he used brown paper towels to apply pressure to the wound.
Now, the story diverges briefly. Bradley said employees tried to find the on-site staff with advanced first-aid training but couldn’t.
“I don’t think there was one there to be honest,” he said.
The park is required to have someone on site at all times with advanced first-aid training. Presley contends that there was. She said he was sent up the chairlift to Bradley, but Bradley left before he arrived.
“We definitely do have that, and we had him there,” Presley said.
Another worker had grabbed Presley’s car and keys to transport Bradley down the mountain. They called an ambulance to meet them in the parking lot of Legends Sports Grill where they handed Bradley off.
At the hospital, the doctor caring for Bradley flushed fine particles of something out of the wound but was unsure exactly what it was, according to the police report. Police believed the cause of the laceration was wadding, a small disc of cloth or paper used in guns when firing blanks. Although the wadding typically dissolves soon after it leaves the barrel, Maggie Valley Police Chief Scott Sutton said Bradley’s injury was not inconsistent with being hit by wadding.
Bradley, however, thinks the particles in his leg were something else. He’s just not sure what.
“I have laid here just trying to figure out what had happened,” he said, speaking from his home in Maggie Valley Monday where he is recuperating.
Nearly 20 years ago, Bradley said, he had been accidently hit by wadding at a closer range and did not suffer as bad an injury.
“That in itself would tell you it wasn’t wadding,” Bradley said.
However, since the incident was deemed an accident, the particles were thrown out.
The doctor told Bradley that the shrapnel missed his femoral artery by “just fractions,” Bradley recalled. “The doctor was calling me ‘Lucky.’”
Bradley is doing OK now but must return to the doctor regularly to have the wound flushed, the dressings replaced and to ensure he doesn’t get an infection. Those involved don’t blame anyone for what was deemed a freak accident.
“It’s a bizarre accident. We do take risks, and things like this can happen,” Preacher said.
But for the most part, the gunfighters only sustain minor abrasions and bruising.
Presley who was informed of the incident right away played off the mishap.
“It was a freak accident, and it was not that big of an accident,” Presley said.
Ghost Town purchases blanks for its gunfighters from a reputable company, a major national supplier of blanks used in staged fight scenes. But accidents from firing blanks are not unheard of, and in very rare cases have even caused deaths.
What happened after the accident, however, has caused a huge rift between two long-time friends. Bradley and Presley have had a close bond for years, united in their shared love and dedication to Ghost Town — both desperate to revive the nostalgia of the theme park’s glory days. That’s now changed.
They agree on two points: Bradley no longer has a job, and it’s questionable whether he will get worker’s compensation to cover the cost of his injury.
But their versions of the story differ widely on why.
According to Presley, Bradley quit.
According to Bradley, he was fired.
“I never fired Robert (Bradley),” Presley said, adding that she heard from a third party that Bradley wanted to hang up his gun holster following the accident.
But Bradley tells it differently. According to him, coworkers kept telling him he was fired, so he called Presley directly. Presley told him that he had quit.
“What the hell do you mean I quit?” Bradley said.
In a statement released yesterday, Presley said she would welcome Bradley back as soon as he submits to a drug test in order to receive worker’s compensation.
“My insurance requires it, or it wouldn’t be any good,” Presley said.
Although state law does not require a drug test to receive worker’s comp benefits, nothing says insurers and businesses can’t make it mandatory for people applying for worker’s compensation.
However, from Bradley’s point-of-view, he is the victim and now the insurance company is on the prowl for any little thing to keep from paying him.
“The one who gets hurt, give them a drug test and try to come up with a reason not to pay,” Bradley said. “I won’t be part of that.”
So, Bradley will instead sit at home nursing his wound and once he heals, start fixing up his home.
“I put so much time into Ghost Town that I need to put some time into my house,” he said.
Bradley worked at Ghost Town on and off for about 50 years. He eventually became the right-hand man of R.B. Coburn, the park’s founder and long-time owner, and even served as the park’s winter caretaker. He was there when the amusement park closed a decade ago. He was there when new owners bought it — and was one of their most ardent supporters, in fact, even as they spiraled into bankruptcy. And he was there right behind Presley last year, once again at the ready to do what it took to revive the theme park that his life had revolved around.
“Robert Bradley is such a fine person in my opinion,” Presley said.
Bradley was not the only veteran gunfighter to leave Ghost Town though. Presley fired Tim Gardner, the man who accidently shot Bradley, for “going up and down the street talking bad stuff” and “making an issue” about the incident.
Right after, Preacher and another gunfighter Digger quit. Preacher said they had disagreements with the management.
“Management can sometimes goad a feller,” Preacher said. “We didn’t feel appreciated.”
Although he left of his own volition, Preacher said he had wanted to be a gunfighter at Ghost Town since he was six and was sad to go.
“I love the place. I am sorry I am no longer there,” he said.
Presley said she wasn’t surprised when Preacher and Digger left.
“They had threatened me (to quit) all spring,” Presley said.
The accident and Gardner’s subsequent firing were the last straw for the gunfighters, who Presley said had been pressing her for a raise.
Presley didn’t know off the top of her head what they made, but said it was at least minimum wage. She justified their lower pay, however.
“They only worked like 15 minutes a shift every gun fight,” Presley said. Ghost Town gunfighters perform several times a day, but have downtime between fights.
Down four performers, Presley quickly hired five or six new gunfighters from a pool of applications she already had on hand, including a couple of older men who worked at Ghost Town in the past.
“They are good and experienced,” Presley said.