No criminal charges will be filed following an investigation into the death of a 6-year-old at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in September, according to the local district attorney, and the young girl's family responded Wednesday, saying the lack of any charges "says our daughter’s life was worth nothing."
Wongel Estifanos, 6, fell 110 feet and died on a ride at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park on Sept. 5, 2021. The subsequent state investigation determined she was not properly buckled in. Attorneys for her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the park in October.
In a formal charging decision letter signed Jan. 25, Ninth Judicial District Attorney Jefferson J. Cheney said that the only potential crimes committed would be criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter. However, his office determined it "cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt any one person or entity acted with criminal negligence or was criminally reckless beyond a reasonable doubt," the letter concludes, and therefore he would not file any charges against the ride's operators or the people responsible for training those employees.
According to an accident investigation report, the state determined that the two operators of the ride, who had not been trained to identify an error related to the ride's seat belts, failed to put on and secure the girl's seat belt before launching the ride that day.
The parents issued a statement where they said their daughter's life has been treated as "cheap and meaningless" by the amusement park and district attorney.
The rest of the statements reads, in full: "We never wanted the people who killed our daughter to go to jail. But for the DA to let them off with nothing says our daughter’s life was worth nothing. Justice should be equal. Our little girl should matter as much as a big corporation. What a terrible message to send. That in Glenwood Springs someone can recklessly kill a child and not even get a ticket. The DA tells us there wasn’t even a drug test done of the operators after they killed our daughter. Why not? The DA tells us he knows the killing of Wongel was a 'gross deviation from the standard of care,' but that he can’t prove which of the operators did it. That doesn’t make sense to us. We want the full truth. We want justice for our daughter. We want to protect others. The criminal system failed our daughter. We will now go to civil court and prove it on our own."
Their daughter attended Stetson Elementary School in the District 49 school district near Colorado Springs, according to a spokesperson for the district.
The family's attorney, Dan Caplis, said the girl's parents were not on the ride with her, but her relatives were.
He said the decision to not file any charges undermines public safety.
"Simply filing the charges that are appropriate when somebody recklessly kills their daughter helps protect others," he said Wednesday. "And the opposite of that is true: the parents say when you don't file criminal charges, when somebody recklessly kills their daughter at an amusement park, what does that do to public safety?"
Caplis said the family has not heard from the park about any proposed changes or improvements.
According to the state's accident investigation report, the girl's death was the result of "multiple operator errors, specifically failure to ensure proper utilization of the passenger restraint system (seat belts), and a lack of understanding and resolution of the Human Machine Interface screen error conditions on the control panel." Inadequate training was also to blame, it continued.
The report says on Sept. 5, 2021, the manager of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park reported that a patron, later identified as Estifanos, had died on the Haunted Mine Drop ride in the park. The drop-tower-style ride uses gravity to create a freefall-like experience for 110 feet down a shaft before stopping. Ride operators are tasked with ensuring seat belts are fastened before starting the ride. Each of the six riders has two seat belts.
Following the incident, the ride was shut down and the girl's body was recovered. The amusement park closed for the following few days.
During the state's investigation, they determined the 6-year-old sat on the ride and operators did not notice she was sitting on top of both seat belts.
"The control system of the ride prevented the operators from dispatching the ride and alerted them to a seat belt safety issue on Ms. Estifanos’ seat," the report reads. "Operators took several incorrect actions and reset the ride seat belt monitors which allowed them to dispatch the ride. Because Ms. Estifanos was not restrained in the seat, she became separated from her seat and fell to the bottom of the HMD shaft, resulting in her death."
Both operators at the time were interviewed. One, who was hired in July 2021, was trained the following month. The second was hired in August and was trained the same month. The amusement park uses a training checklist for each ride, and it must be initialed by the trainer and then signed by the operator and manager, according to the report. The first item on the checklist — “Operations manual (refer to written procedure)” — was initialed for just one of the two new employees. The manual lists instructions for seat belts on the Haunted Mine Drop.
Investigators found that the manual did not have any procedures to follow if any error was found on the ride. It also did not explain the various indicator lights on the ride's control system. When Estifanos was on the ride, the system alerted operators to a seat belt issue.
The equipment was also evaluated for any issues.
The Haunted Mine Drop was inspected, in accordance with the Colorado Amusement Rides and Devices Regulations, on June 15, 2018, June 8, 2019, June 16, 2020, and June 8, 2021, according to the report. Any issues found during those inspections were corrected, the state found. The state's amusement rides and devices audit inspector and supervisor found on Sept. 7, 2021 — two days after the incident — that the ride functioned according to specifications.
While reviewing video surveillance from that specific ride, state investigators saw one of the operators locked seat No. 3's seat belt as it was unoccupied on the ride cycle prior to the one Estifanos was on, according to the report. After those passengers left, the operator did not unlock that seat belt, and Estifanos sat on top of it. The operator helped the riders lock into their seat belts and did not see that the young girl was only holding the tail of the seat belt across her lap. As the operator tightened the seat belts and pulled the tail out of her hands, they did not notice the seat belts were not secured across her lap, according to the report.
When the operator returned to the control room, the control system showed an error with seat No. 3, where the young girl was sitting. According to the manufacturer's manual, this error meant the seat belt rod was not removed from the restraint block after the previous ride cycle. The operator checked the rods on all seats multiple times and told investigators they did not think the issue was improperly inserted rods, according to the report. A second operator arrived, and the first operator explained the situation.
"Operator 2 chose to unlock the restraint block using the manual Restraint Release Selector Switch, and then went and removed all rods from the restraint block next to the seats and immediately reinserted them, without understanding and resolving the actual issue — that Ms. Estifanos did not have the seat belts across her lap," the report reads.
The operators then started the ride.
Based on the investigation, the state came to several findings, as outlined in the accident investigation report:
- The first operator did not prepare the seat belts correctly between the rides, which caused the young girl to sit in a previously unoccupied seat and on top of the locked seat belts
- Both operators did not follow the operating procedures in the manual, which is a violation of Amusement Ride and Devices Regulations
- Training for both operators did not emphasize the risks of the ride and did not include reviewing the manufacturer's operating manual. They did not have a full understanding of the ride's control system and what its errors meant
- Having multiple operators making decisions and participating in different steps in the ride cycle was not typical. It also took the focus off passenger safety
- The ride manual did not instruct operators on how to address errors. It is also possible that the seat belts could lock when they were not positioned correctly