DENVER – The 6-year-old Colorado Springs girl who died after falling 110 feet on a ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park earlier this month was not properly buckled in and was sitting on top of two seatbelts, according to a state investigation released Friday.
The report from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s Division of Oil and Public Safety, which oversees amusement park rides, found the two people operating the ride were given indicators that one of the seatbelts was not properly buckled and that since Wongel Estifanos, the girl who was killed, had a belt strap sitting across her lap, they did not notice.
The report blames multiple factors for the girl’s death, including multiple operator errors and a lack of proper training and understanding of how the ride’s operator interface worked.
The report says the ride, the Haunted Mine Drop, will remain closed until the division re-permits the ride, which can only happen once the issues raised in the report are addressed. The park was closed for several days in the wake of the incident when the state required the park to give a refresher training to staff working on other rides at the park.
According to the report, the two ride operators working at the time had been working at the park for about two months and less than three weeks, respectively. The one who had been hired on July 9 was trained on Aug. 5, and the second was hired Aug. 21 and trained the next day.
The ride, which drops people 110 feet down a mine shaft, has a safety system that utilizes two different types of seatbelts – one that has a rod and is held be a buckle and is monitored by a touch-screen interface for the ride, and another which “mimics an automotive lap seatbelt,” according to the report, and is not monitored on the screen.
According to the report, the ride will not function unless the two seatbelts are buckled for each of the six seats and will give operators an error if the rod on the first belt is not locked into place. The report says operators are supposed to unbuckle the belts after each ride so the next passengers can get in and buckled. But that did not happen when Estifanos got on the ride, according to the report, and she sat on top of buckled belts as no one had sat in her seat on the trip before.
Further, according to the report, the operators were not trained on the ride manufacturer’s operating manual. An alarm on the interface sounded because Estifanos’s belt had not been unbuckled from the ride beforehand, and one of the operators checked the rods again and found them to be in their proper place.
The second operator arrived, removed the rods and put them back into place, and they also did not notice that Estifanos was sitting on her seatbelts.
“In checking seatbelts, Operator 2 checked Ms. Estifanos’ seatbelts by repeating the same actions as Operator 1 did in the first check,” the report says. “Ms. Estifanos had placed the tail of a seatbelt back across her lap; Operator 2 also did not notice that neither of the seatbelts were positioned across her lap.”
The two operators went back to the ride’s control room, and the interface no longer showed any errors, and one of the operators started the ride.
“Because Ms. Estifanos was not restrained in the seat she became separated from her seat and fell to the bottom of the [Haunted Mine Drop] shaft, resulting in her death,” the report says.
The Garfield County Coroner’s Office said Estifanos died of multiple blunt force injuries. Reports from one of the operators said when the other passengers came back up, they were “frantic” and saying that someone was still in the mine.
A review of surveillance video of operations on the ride also found one of the operators “inconsistently used the process of unbuckling and moving all seatbelts to clear the seats” – something other operators were found to have done more consistently.
The report found the two operators did not receive adequate training on the risks involving the ride and “did not fully understand their responsibility regarding passenger safety.” It also found shortfalls in the manufacturer’s and operating manuals regarding how the seatbelts should be unbuckled by the operators.
It says that investigators found violations of the Colorado Amusement Rides and Devices Regulations and that enforcement would be pursued.
The report also details an email forwarded to the Division of Oil and Public Safety during the investigation by the Garfield County coroner that came from a person who said they also had almost been dispatched on the ride in 2019 without being buckled in. The person claims in the email that the operator at the time disputed that they were not buckled in, only to realize that the person was indeed correct.
“During the whole ride all I could think of was what if I didn’t insist on [redacted] checking again? I had no idea what the ride was, I didn’t know the floor was going to drop. This could have ended in tragedy for everyone,” the email said.
Attorney Dan Caplis issued a statement on behalf of the girl's family saying her parents were provided with the report Friday morning and urged more people who have witnessed shortcomings at the park to come forward on top of the email that was cited in the report.
"Wongel's parents are determined to do everything in their power to make sure that no one ever dies this way again. As part of this mission they are asking witnesses to come forward, including folks who experienced problems with the Haunted Mine Drop before Wongel was killed on it," Caplis said in a statement.
In an interview, Caplis said he intends to file a lawsuit against the park on behalf of the family.
"These parents are so focused in protecting others from going through the same thing that what they want to do is use this lawsuit to get the full truth about this ride, about the operation of the park, the full truth on the table so that everyone out there can make their own decisions," he said, adding that the incident "never should've happened and is 100% on the park."
Caplis said witnesses who wish to talk should contact him at his website or at 303-770-5551.
In a written statement, Steve Beckley, the founder of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, said the park is “heart-broken by the tragic accident.”
“There is no way we can imagine the pain of loss that the Estifanos family and their friends are experiencing. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them,” Beckley said, adding that the future of the Haunted Mine Drop is undetermined.
“…We have been working closely with the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety and independent safety experts to review this incident. Earlier today, we received the state’s finaly report and will review it carefully for recommendations,” he added. “More than anything, we want the Estifanos family to know how deeply sorry we are for their loss and how committed we are to making sure it never happens again.”