Monday, 6 Dec 2021

Family of child who died on Glenwood Caverns ride sues amusement park

The family of a 6-year-old girl who died on a ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park on Labor Day weekend sued the park Wednesday over what they say is a pattern of recklessness and improper training that caused Wongel Estifanos’ wrongful death.

The lawsuit alleges the park was warned about lax seat-belt checks on the ride as early as 2018, and says park officials did not tell state investigators about a complaint received that year about seat-belt safety on the ride.

Wongel died Sept. 5 after she boarded the Haunted Mine Drop at the Garfield County amusement park. Ride operators did not realize that the girl was sitting on top of her seat belts, and they ignored an alarm that should have alerted them to the problem. The operators reset the system in order to bypass the alarm and sent the six-person ride into a 110 foot-plunge into a tunnel made to look like a mine shaft, state investigators found.

Wongel, who was not buckled in, fell from her seat and died. She’d been visiting the park with her family on a vacation from Colorado Springs and went on the ride with her uncle and other relatives, according to the family’s lawsuit. She met the height requirement.

“When the ride came to a stop at the bottom of the mine shaft, Wongel’s uncle checked to see whether Wongel had enjoyed the ride. He was stricken with terror to see that Wongel was not in her seat,” the lawsuit reads. “Wongel’s uncle then saw Wongel’s battered body at the bottom of the mine shaft.”

Her relatives screamed and tried to get out of their restraints, but could not. They were pulled back to the top of the ride, where they frantically sought help.

The state’s investigation found Wongel died because of multiple errors by the ride operators and inadequate training. The two ride operators had been hired just weeks before the incident.

The state’s investigation also discovered one person had warned the park in August 2019 about lax seat belt checks on the ride — but the lawsuit alleges the park was warned by another customer in 2018 as well, and that the amusement park did not disclose that complaint to the state.

That woman emailed the park in July 2018 and detailed an incident in which a teenager was not belted into the Haunted Mine Drop, but the operators left the area and prepared to start the ride anyway, even as passengers shouted “‘Wait, wait!,’” according to the lawsuit.

“That mother informed Glenwood Caverns that when the operators walked out, ignoring their cries for help, ‘…I sat there knowing that the floor was about to roll away with him not buckled in. I understood the ride went faster than free fall so was immediately thinking about how to try to protect my small child from what was about to be a large flailing body that was about to come crashing down onto our heads,’” the lawsuit reads.

The operators in that case returned, apologized and properly buckled the teenager in, according to the lawsuit. The park’s human resources manager told the concerned mother in 2018 that they would “retrain” and “take any necessary steps to improve the safety of our operation,” the lawsuit says.

Glenwood Caverns did not disclose the 2018 incident to state investigators, the lawsuit says, even though the park was required to share all complaints about the ride with investigators. The Haunted Mine Drop has been operating since 2017.

The lawsuit also suggests the amusement park attempted to hide the 2019 complaint from state investigators, who learned about it only because the passenger forwarded a copy of his 2019 email to the park to the Garfield County coroner.

That passenger said he inadvertently sat on top of the seat belts on the ride, and had to be persistent with the ride operator to convince the operator that he was not buckled in.

“When Colorado investigators asked Glenwood Caverns whether it had received the 2019 email, Glenwood Caverns said that it had, and had not provided it to Colorado investigators due to an issue with their email system,” the lawsuit reads.

Wongel’s parents, Estifanos Dagne and Rahel Estifanos, filed the lawsuit to try to prevent future amusement park deaths, their attorney Dan Caplis, said in a statement.

“Their mission is to protect other families by holding all who are responsible for the killing of their daughter fully accountable,” he said, “and by sending a loud and clear message to the entire amusement park industry.”

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