Colorado theme park ride passed safety inspections, but questions remain about girl's death

By Christopher Osher and Evan Ochsner

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The amusement ride on which a Colorado Springs girl died on Sunday passed all safety inspections, but its designer has long promoted the absence of some safety features he says makes the ride more exciting.

Colorado Springs resident Wongel Estifanos, 6, died on the Haunted Mine Drop at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park Sunday night. An investigation into her death is ongoing, but the ride's designer, Stan Checketts, has long been vocal in promoting the lack of bulky restraints on his rides. The restraint system that is featured on the Haunted Mine Drop — two seat belts that extend across riders' laps — is in use on similar rides across the country.

Checketts' company flaunts the limited restraints on rides as a selling point, and another ride featured in Glenwood Caverns and designed by Checketts also advertises its minimal restraints.

"Our custom designed restraint system is a massive part of the rider experience," Checketts' company website says. "We don't use over the head harnesses that many other manufacturers use. The Soaring Eagle restraint system allow riders to feel new sensations totally unique to other drop rides."

Last year, a South Carolina drop tower designed by Checketts failed a safety inspection that prevented it from obtaining a permit to operate. Glenwood Caverns has not been free from controversy, as park-goers have sued on multiple occasions over injuries sustained on another ride.

Officials said state and local agencies are investigating the incident, and it was not yet clear if Estifanos' death was due to operator error, a fault with the ride or another issue.

The Haunted Mine Drop at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park consistently passed all annual third-party inspection reports since it began operating and has “been in compliance with all regulatory requirements,” said Cher Haavind, a spokesperson at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The Division of Oil and Public Safety within the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment requires annual inspections of amusement rides. Those inspection reports are filed at the amusement parks. The state only requires the filing of an annual certificate of inspection signed by an inspector who affirms on that document “that any deficiencies identified or noted at the time of inspection have been corrected.”

C. W. Craven, who inspected the Haunted Mine Drop in 2019, 2020 and 2021 and signed certificate of inspection documents for the ride in each of those years, extended his condolences to the family of the girl who died. He said that given that there is an ongoing investigation, state officials and the amusement park operator would have to answer any questions about the ride.

Operators of amusement parks in the state also are required to maintain logs of daily inspections they conduct on rides they operate for three years, and those records must be provided to the state upon request. Amusement park operators must notify the state when patrons are injured during rides, but state officials still were gathering those documents for review by The Gazette.

Haavind said the death at Glenwood Caverns is being jointly investigated by the Division of Oil and Public Safety, the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Glenwood Springs.

“We will look at the current condition of the ride, relying heavily on certified third-party inspector’s observations, as well as observations and notes from prior safety inspections,” Haavind said in a prepared statement. “Also reviewed will be interviews with all parties involved to determine to the best of our knowledge what occurred.”

She said any final findings would be released to the public upon completion of the investigation.

It is not yet known if the limited restraints promoted by Checketts are a factor in Estifanos' death, but the exposure created by the lack of a harness or metal lap bar is a point of pride for Checketts that he says makes his rides unique.

When the Haunted Mine Drop opened in 2017, Checketts told FOX31, “We don’t put shoulder restraints on the side of your head which makes it a little bit more scary, a little bit more exciting.”

In a 2018 interview with Coaster Studios, Checketts said restraints were not necessary for the Haunted Mine Drop and would take away from the rider experience. “We ride elevators don’t we? Do you want me to build another elevator? No.”

Online commenters and videos make clear that Checketts-designed rides are far from being elevators, often noting the added adrenaline provided by the absence of more stringent restraints.

One of those rides last year failed a safety inspection and was denied operating permits. The Sky Fall ride at Free Fall Park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had a damaged rope on its counterweight system and an inoperative emergency evacuation operation, local television station WBTW reported.

A ride operator at Free Fall Park reached by phone Wednesday said the ride was now running, and state records show it passed inspection in February. Online videos and photos of the ride show it does not have metal restraint bars or over-the-shoulder harnesses.

Checketts designed other rides in Glenwood Caverns, including the Soaring Eagle zip line, which, according to his company website features "no awkward harnesses." Online photos show riders seated in a cart carrying them along without metal lap bars or harnesses. In the Amusement Today interview, Checketts said Glenwood Caverns featured three of his rides before the park built the Haunted Mine Drop.

A spokesperson for the park did not respond to a question about whether the other Checketts-designed rides would be operating when the park reopens Saturday. Efforts to reach Checketts by phone were unsuccessful.

Checkett's design work has another home in Colorado at Cave of the Winds. The Terror-dactyl ride at the Manitou attraction plunges riders on a swing into a canyon. Images online show the ride features harnesses that extend over the shoulders of riders.

Cave of the Winds Marketing Manager Trip Uhault said the ride was completely safe and operators didn't have any concerns about it after the Glenwood incident.

"It's a totally different ride and a totally different situation," Uhault said.

Glenwood Caverns has been sued at least three times for injuries that occurred on another ride, the Alpine Coaster. A woman sued in 2015 alleging that she suffered broken ribs and a broken back after one of the cars on that ride that she was in collided with other cars that had stalled at the bottom of a curve in the track.

A judge ruled that her lawsuit could not proceed because she had signed an annual thrill pass application, which included a liability release that waived her rights to sue. The woman’s lawyers argued that the waiver was not valid because the amusement park operator had engaged in “willful and wanton conduct,” defined in case law as “conduct purposefully committed which the actor must have realized as dangerous, done heedlessly and recklessly, without regard to consequences, or the rights and safety of others.”

A Garfield County District Court judge ruled that the woman’s expert witness only had alleged negligence by the operator, a lower threshold than what was required to void the liability waiver the woman had signed.

A similar lawsuit was filed by another woman who suffered back injuries after a sled car on the Alpine Coaster was struck by another sled car three times. A judge similarly ruled that her lawsuit could not proceed to trial because she had signed a document waiving her rights to sue.

The operators of the amusement park settled during mediation an earlier lawsuit filed by a woman in 2007 who alleged she needed surgery to repair an injury to her left shoulder she suffered when a car she was riding on the Alpine Slide collided with another car. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed in the court documents.

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