In July 2018, a woman who rode the Haunted Mine Drop with her child reached out to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park after operators almost launched the ride without securing a teenage boy’s seat belts, despite other passengers’ cries for help, the complaint states.
“I sat there knowing that the floor was about to roll away with him not buckled in,” the woman wrote in her email to the park.
That scenario was averted after the operators returned to buckle up the teenage boy, apologizing before launching the ride. The park also promised the woman that her email would help prevent such an incident in the future, court records state.
“I can assure you that this email will allow us to retrain and continue to assure the utmost safe operation of this ride and other aspects of the park,” the park’s human resources manager replied in an email.
Now, Wongel’s parents are suing the park, alleging it fell short on that promise by failing to properly train its ride operators about safety measures and ignoring multiple reports from “angry” and “terrified” riders who alerted staff of similar incidents, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed Wednesday in Colorado.
“Before Wongel was killed the park was repeatedly warned by terrified customers that the ride operators were not properly belting passengers into the Haunted Mine Drop,” the family’s attorney, Dan Caplis, said in a statement shared with The Washington Post.
A Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park spokesperson did not immediately respond to a message from The Post late Wednesday. But park founder Steve Beckley previously told The Post that “safety is, and always has been, our top priority.”
He added: “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.”
The lawsuit arrives weeks after an investigation conducted by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment revealed that, before the tower-style ride dropped more than 100 feet, operators failed to notice that Wongel was sitting on top of her seat belts. Instead of removing all passengers from their seats to identify the problem when the computer alerted the issue, the agency found, one of the operators manually reset the monitor and dispatched the ride.
The report released by the agency also found the park was at fault for failing to properly train both ride operators, who each had less than three months on the job and, as a result, did not understand the ride’s computer system indicating a problem with the girl’s seat. Because of this, the report found, neither employee knew what to do when the issue arose.
On Sept. 5, Wongel and her family arrived at the Glenwood Springs, Colo., park for their first family vacation since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. That evening, Wongel’s uncle took Wongel, two of his children, his wife and another relative onto the Haunted Mine Drop, the lawsuit states.
It wasn’t until the ride came to a halt at the bottom of the mine shaft that Wongel’s uncle realized she was not at her seat but lying at the bottom of the mine shaft unresponsive, the suit states. Wongel’s uncle and other relatives on the ride desperately yelled and tried to reach Wongel before they were pulled up 110 feet to the top of the ride. Wongel was pronounced dead at the scene.
Following the girl’s death, the family’s lawyers became aware of two people who claim they had witnessed or experienced seat belt safety issues when riding the Haunted Mine Drop and shared emails they’d sent to park administrators to alert them of the failures, court records state.
On July 25, 2018, the mother of the 6-year-old child who reported that operators almost launched the ride without buckling up the teenage boy reached out to the park to report the incident.
“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 woman said in an email to the park, recounting the moment operators left the room.
In a follow-up email, the lawsuit states, the park’s human resources manager assured the woman the park would “take any necessary steps to improve the safety of our operation.”
In August 2019, another concerned passenger emailed the park to report that an operator had failed to buckle his seat belts when he was loaded onto the Haunted Mine Drop. When the passenger told the operator that he was not buckled in, the lawsuit states, the operator argued with the passenger and insisted he was buckled in. The passenger continued to insist he was not, and the operator eventually properly fastened his seat belts, according to the lawsuit.
Although Colorado authorities had ordered the park to turn over all emails with customers’ complaints about the ride as part of their investigation, the lawsuit alleges the park failed to disclose those two emails.