A 6-year-old Colorado Springs girl plunged more than 100 feet to her death at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park over Labor Day weekend because operators of the vertical drop thrill ride she was on did not properly check her seatbelts, according to a state investigation into the fatality.
Investigators found the girl, Wongel Estifanos, was actually sitting on the two seatbelts instead of wearing them across her lap, and the ride’s two newly hired operators never noticed even though they checked that everyone’s belt was fastened.
An alarm system warned of a problem, but the two workers weren’t trained well enough to know what to do about it, so one of them reset the system and sent the ride on its way, investigators with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s division of oil and public safety found.
Inspectors ordered the park to remain closed shortly after the Sept. 5 incident while outside trainers were brought in to retrain staff on how to safely operate the various rides there.
Operators are responsible for “fastening and checking two separate seatbelts for each passenger prior to dispatching the ride,” the report says, noting an alarm system warned of a seatbelt problem. “Operators took several incorrect actions and reset the ride seatbelt monitors which allowed them to dispatch the ride.”
Estifanos died of multiple blunt force trauma from the fall, according to the Garfield County coroner. No other injuries were reported, officials have said, and the girl was found at the bottom of the ride’s mine shaft.
The nine-page report does not say who occupied the other five seats on the Haunted Mine Drop, but the girl was on vacation with her family at the time, officials have said. The state expects to issue violations and fines related to the incident but has not determined the extent.
The ride is equipped with two lap belts. The report describes one as using a special metal rod at the end that is affixed to a locking mechanism. The second is more akin to a seatbelt in a motor vehicle. Operations manuals for the ride say operators are expected to fasten both but do not tell them what to do if an error occurs.
Investigators said the manufacturer’s operating manual was not part of the workers’ training, nor is an explanation of the alarm system or what to do when there’s a problem.
The workers were apparently confused over whether the lap belts were across Estifanos’s lap when she was actually sitting on them, according to the report. No one from the previous ride had been sitting in one of the middle seats where Estifanos sat, so the seatbelt there had not been detached, investigators found.
A training checklist both operators signed in August shows each said they understood the requirement to “secure all seatbelts. Ensure they are low and snug across their lap. Pull on seatbelts to ensure they are locked.”
Seatbelts are fastened even if there is no passenger in the seat so that the ride will operate, the report says. Operators are supposed to unfasten all the belts after each ride and passengers are unloaded so the next load of riders can be buckled in.
That didn’t happen for Estifanos’s ride, according to investigators who said they watched video of the incident.
Instead, Estifanos sat atop the seatbelts and pulled the tail flap across her lap, making it appear as if she was buckled in.
“As Operator 1 tightened the seatbelts, the tail was pulled out of Ms. Estifanos’ hands, and Operator 1 did not notice that the seatbelts were not positioned across her lap,” the report says.
Because the belts on Estifanos’s seat had not been unfastened from the previous ride cycle, the alarm system showed an error. The operator went back to double-check all the rods and saw they were properly affixed.
The second operator arrived and, when told of the problem, unlocked the rods, removed them all, and then reinserted them “without understanding and resolving the actual issue — that Ms. Estifanos did not have the seatbelts across her lap.”
“I asked (Operator 2) why (the alarm) was going off … (Operator 2) said to just restart and try again,” according to Operator 1’s written statement included in the report, saying all the latches and lap belts were double-checked before leaving on a break.
When the reset alarm system showed no more errors, the ride was activated. The second operator didn’t notice Estifanos was missing until the ride platform returned about two minutes later, the report says. The first had already left.
“When they came back up they were all frantic telling someone was still in the mine,”Operator 2 wrote in a statement.
Both workers were hired within weeks of the incident. The operator who activated the ride had been an employee for just two weeks, according to the report.
Caverns workers in the past were required to take a six-page exam showing they understood the ride they were to operate as well as its safety features, according to copies of the exam from a 2011 accident the state investigated. The report does not address whether workers are still required to take those tests.
The exam asked what procedures are to be followed if a worker feels a ride is unsafe and whether they’re authorized to unload passengers as a result. It also asked about the instructions operators must give to riders, as well as safety checks they must conduct of each rider, such as whether seatbelts are fastened correctly.
Dan Caplis, the attorney representing the Estifanos family, said he would comment later Friday.
Park founder Steve Beckley said in an emailed statement to The Post that “safety is, and always has been, our top priority.”
“Since opening our first ride just over 15 years ago, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park has delivered more than 10 million safe and enjoyable rides,” he wrote, noting park management is reviewing the report for recommendations.
“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,” he wrote.
He said the future of the ride is “undetermined.”
Investigators said they were contacted by someone who had a similar experience in August 2019, telling them they had inadvertently sat on the ride’s seatbelts and had to convince the operators not to launch the platform.
The person “told me it took persistence to get the operator to realize the belt was not fastened,” Garfield County Coroner Robert Glassmire emailed sheriff and state investigators on Sept. 8. Glassmire said the person told him they’d written Caverns’ management about the incident and “said (they) never heard back from the Caverns.”
“During the whole ride all I could think of was what if I didn’t insist on (them) checking again?” the person’s Aug. 15, 2019, email to the Caverns said. “I had no idea what the ride was, I didn’t know that the floor was going to drop. This could have ended in tragedy for everyone.”
The unidentified person’s email noted a separate incident in which someone told another person on the ride to check their own seatbelts because “the (person) inside is not doing a good job checking the seat belts and you could fall.”
“I urge you to look into this, otherwise you could have customers who will get seriously injured or even worse, dead,” the person wrote in the email to the Caverns. “Safety is and should always be the prime objective of any workplace and I have serious reservations about your park.”
The park’s general manager, Nancy Heard, wrote investigators on Sept. 20 to say she was not aware of the incident or the emailed complaint, calling it a “regrettable clerical error” that was caused by a faulty email system.
The ride was designed without shoulder harnesses in order to make it more exciting, The Denver Post has reported. The investigation concluded the ride operated properly and there was no equipment malfunction.
But, investigators said there were still concerns with the ride.
“Neither the manufacturer’s manual nor the operator manual instructed that it is the operator’s responsibility to buckle the unmonitored seatbelt (without the rod) across the passenger,” the report concluded. “The failure of the (manufacturer’s) manual to instruct operators on how to address errors hinders operators’ ability to effectively utilize the safety in place within the system.”
The Haunted Mine Drop ride only uses seatbelts and has no safety bar, according to a promotional video by Coaster Studios in May 2019 in which a park employee was interviewed. The safety belt system relies on a metal rod that is locked into place across the riders’ laps, according to the video.
Riders sit facing forward and raise their arms and legs at an operator’s direction and then the six-seat platform is released, plunging down through a mine-shaft-like tunnel. The ride takes about 2.5 seconds and drops 110 feet.
A counterweight and a braking system are used to slow the ride as it approaches the bottom, according to the video.
Ride designer Stan Checketts of Providence, Utah, has not responded to Denver Post efforts to contact him at his company, Soaring Eagle Zipline.
Checketts founded and later sold S&S Sansei, one of the biggest amusement ride design manufacturers in the world. The company has about 150 tower drop rides internationally — the latest in China — and none are without a shoulder harness.
A spokesman at S&S, which did not make or design the Haunted Mine Drop, said modern rides cannot operate if any of their safety features are not properly affixed, but did not say whether alarms could be overridden.
Three members of the oil and public safety division’s Amusement Rides and Devices program collaborated with the Garfield County Sheriff’s office and coroner’s office to investigate the accident.
The division said the Haunted Mine Drop will remain closed until a new permit is issued, which will require the factors that caused the operator error to be addressed, and a new inspection certificate issued.
The state’s amusement ride inspection program allows companies to hire outside companies to check the safety of the attractions. The division keeps a list of approved inspectors from which companies can select. The inspector at Glenwood Caverns is based in Florida, according to the list.
Inspection records previously released to The Post show all the park’s rides, including the Haunted Mine Drop, passed inspection by Worldwide Safety Group in Plant City, Fla., each year since 2019.
Riders or their parents or guardians are required to sign liability waivers in which they not only agree a ride can be risky but also that they accept any negligence by ride workers, The Post has reported. Colorado is one of the few states in which a parent or guardian is allowed to sign a waiver on behalf of a child.