Bounce houses have caused tens of thousands of injuries and at least five deaths in recent years. But many states, including Colorado, do not provide any oversight of the businesses, a CALL7 investigation found.
"I felt like I was going to die," 9-year-old Juaquin Vigil told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta, recounting how the inflatable castle he was playing in suddenly lost air during a party. "I tried climbing right back up and kept trying and trying but it just all collapsed on me."
"I couldn't breathe," the boy added. "I saw black. I saw red."
Vigil's mother, Darleen Herrera, rushed to action when her son did not emerge. She lifted the heavy plastic of the deflated house as her son gasped underneath.
"I was panicking when I didn't see him," Herrera said. "It was collapsed down and I picked it up and somehow I saw a foot."
CALL7 Investigators discovered that anyone can enter the bounce house business cheaply. Bounce houses were listed on www.CraigsList.org for as little as $1,000. Would-be operators can buy one and rent it at a children's birthday party, no questions asked.
State officials do not know how many bounce house businesses operate in Colorado. In 2011, the state's Division of Oil and Public Safety made a one-time estimate: 450 bounce houses owned by about 150 businesses.
Information on incidents is spotty, too. A July 10, 2009, letter to "The File" of the Maryland-based U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated more than 30,000 bounce house injuries in a five-year period ending in 2007, the most recent data available. The agency also tracked four bounce house deaths, including a 3-year-old child. CALL7 investigators confirmed at least one other death – a 5-year-old boy who fell from an inflatable castle to a concrete floor.
When Herrera attempted to report the incident involving her son, she discovered that the state of Colorado does not regulate the business. Therefore, she was unable to immediately report the company that rented the bounce house. [For our story, Herrera could not recall the bounce house operator, rented by a friend for the party.]
In 2011, Herrera met with state Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who crafted legislation to hold operators accountable.
"I'm a firm believer that this state should be regulating these kinds of businesses," Guzman said.
Senate Bill 11-075 called for bounce house businesses to register with the state, face inspections and carry insurance. The bill would have required operators to pay $100 per bounce house, a fee meant to cover the costs of inspections by state officials.
But Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Democrat, joined with three Republicans to kill the bill in a committee. She was concerned that "the regulation that was proposed would be difficult to enforce and that the people who are causing problems were not the people who would file and get licensed anyway."
CALL7'S Marchetta questioned Aguilar: "If what you're saying is true, then these bad businesses wouldn't go out and follow the rules and get licenses anyway. At least the public would have a way to vet the ones that are following the rules because right now it's anybody's guess."
"You know, you probably have a good point there," Aguilar answered.
Herrera hopes lawmakers will revisit the issue when the state Legislature convenes for its next session in January. Meanwhile, no state official knows exactly how many bounce-house injuries there are – or how many close calls like Juaquin's.
"I hate to think what would have happened if he was in there a minute or two longer," Herrera said, adding, "that scares me, terrifies me."