Employee Errors Led to Colorado Drop Ride Fatality

September 25, 2021, 12:49 PM · Theme park employees' errors killed a six-year-old girl on a Colorado drop ride earlier this month, according to a state investigation.

Operators running the Haunted Mine Drop at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park on September 5 failed to notice that six-year-old Wongel Estifanos was not buckled into her seat on the ride, then ignored a system warning. Operators overrode the warning and dispatched the ride, from which the girl fell to her death.

"The fatal accident was the result of multiple operator errors, specifically failure to ensure proper utilization of the passenger restraint system (seatbelts), and a lack of understanding and resolution of the Human Machine Interface (HMI) screen error conditions on the control panel," the report from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Division of Oil and Public Safety said.

The 110-foot Haunted Mine Drop is a unique drop ride that is built underground in a mine shaft. The ride has remained closed since the incident.

Haunted Mine Drop
Haunted Mine Drop at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park

An attorney for the girl's family announced plans to sue the park.

"Wongel's parents are determined to do everything in their power to make sure that no one ever dies this way again. As part of this mission they are asking witnesses to come forward, including folks who experienced problems with the Haunted Mine Drop before Wongel was killed on it," the attorney said in a statement released to the press.

The park issued its own statement following the release of the state investigation.

The owners, management and entire Glenwood Caverns family are heart-broken by the tragic accident that occurred here on September 5. There is no way we can imagine the pain of loss that the Estifanos family and their friends are experiencing. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.

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.

We have been working closely with Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety and independent safety experts to review this incident. Earlier today, we received the state’s final report and will review it carefully 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.

The incident provides yet another reminder that no matter how much an attraction spends on creative design and ride systems - even with redundant safety procedures, it's ultimately up to operators to ensure that guests experience an attraction safely.

I don't have any first-hand knowledge of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park's operations, as I have not visited the park. But I have worked as a ride operator elsewhere and have spoken with countless ride operators over the years. An incident such as this is the worst nightmare imaginable for everyone involved: the girl's family, the operators who made these mistakes and now have to live with that, and the park managers that failed to put a properly trained and experienced ops team on that load platform.

Soapbox time. The theme park industry has a moral, legal, and economic obligation to promote ops as more than a minimum wage, unskilled job. Good operators do not just save guests time and parks money - they save lives. But operators cannot do that without proper training and enough supervised time on the job to develop the experience that is vital to successful attraction operation. Yet operators won't stay on the job long enough to develop that experience unless parks provide the pay, benefits, and support that employees need to make ends meet and then to feel valued and respected.

The theme park industry loves to talk about making dreams come true. But what happened at Glenwood Caverns shows that this industry has the power to make nightmares come true, too. And that should keep a lot of managers throughout this industry up tonight.

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Replies (13)

September 25, 2021 at 1:44 PM

It reminds me of the Big Thunder catastrophe at Disneyland -- where operators heard something clacking under the train, but decided send it through one more time (with guests on board) before pulling it off the track for inspection -- and an upstop wheel came off, resulting in the death of someone in the front row (I won't describe what happened because it's gruesome, but it was definitely negligence on the part of the ride operators that caused the death).

You can have all the safety systems available, but they don't work if operators ignore the signs of danger.

While you get what you pay for when it comes to hiring ride operators, and I'm all for upping their pay as they literally have people's lives in their hands, I blame the operators more than I blame the parks. If the systems are there, as they were in the case of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, and are ignored, that's not a pay-scale thing. That's either a lack of training or operators who just didn't care and ignored the literal warnings they were given.

The park is, of course, ultimately responsible. But these operators (in both examples given) should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring clear indications that something was wrong.

September 25, 2021 at 2:27 PM

As a lay person when I hear “overrode a warning” I immediately think “what the heck did you do that for”, but then my more calm part kicks in and goes “well maybe not all warnings are critical, maybe some are pure advisory and/or nothing”

So I’m wondering if anyone can give us some insight. What types of “warnings” does a modern ride give its operators, are they always critical “you have to be negligent to ignore it” or are there more benign ones, and if so, how many would you expect to override on a shift?

September 25, 2021 at 3:11 PM

@Kenny Vee-

Wow, that incident was also on September 5th…

It’s incredible sad to hear this story. Nothing great ever comes out of an attraction incident. I hope the family is okay.

Additionally, I wonder what kind of warning sign was showing. I’ve never been to Glenwood but I’ve heard of the ride and would assume that it’s some sort of OTSR that has a buckle that keeps the restraint in place or something. First, if it’s protocol to have all buckles clicked in, then it astounds me at how the operators missed that and ignored the warning signals. Maybe they were having a bad day but now they have a death on their hands and I can’t imagine how horrible they must feel. Ik the news will take this story and run with it like they always do, but I truly hope that this incident (along with others) can be used as an example of what not to do while operating an attraction.

September 25, 2021 at 3:15 PM

I think you have a very good question, Chad, and I was not a ride operator in my time with Disney. But if the operator doesn't check to see that restraints are in place (as seems to be the case here), that (to me) definitely qualifies as negligence. Now whether that comes down to ignorance or a lack of training will remain to be seen -- either way, the park is the responsible party in my eyes.

All I can think of is attractions like Star Tours or Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye at Disneyland, where there is a light system where the operator can see which seat belts are fastened and those which aren't. And then they can compare the unlit lights to empty seats to see whether there is anyone on board who hasn't fastened their seatbelts. And I've had many times on both where it wasn't just "tug on that yellow strap," but cast members calling out people who had not fastened their seat belt because the system told them that this hadn't happened.

Again, I cannot speak for Glenwood Caverns' safety systems, but I know Disney has some easily identifiable (even from the guest point of view) systems in place.

September 25, 2021 at 3:18 PM

@Postcott I agree, no matter what ends up being discovered about what happened, these operators have to feel AWFUL. Like, I'm not wanting to villainise them. Because I don't know the extenuating circumstances. But man, it sucks to have something like this happen.

September 25, 2021 at 3:25 PM

Seatbelt warnings on a ride should never have a bypass option. Isn't that the reason why so many operators will close harnesses/secure belts on empty seats? This sounds like a major controls engineering failure.

September 25, 2021 at 7:25 PM

Found that the restraint for the attraction is just a seatbelt... that's it. It also opened in 2017 but the ride system looks like it was created in the 90s.

September 26, 2021 at 1:40 AM

This is such a tragic incident, and my heart goes out to the family.

For those interested in the technical details, here is the full incident report from the State of Colorado's Amusement Rides and Devices Program: https://mcusercontent.com/b8edaed9d386fc047dcd5cc35/files/8dd9d8d5-51e1-bd62-238a-34b463c038ff/131_Glenwood_Caverns_HMD_accident_report.pdf It contains links to photos of the over-the-lap seat belt system used, scans of incident reports from the two ride operators, and a summary of the incident. It seems like a series of inexcusable human errors - from lack of training to operator mistakes - contributed to this tragedy. It seems stunning that there was not a procedure for resetting the ride between guests, which led to the ride operators thinking that the seat belts were all fastened properly when one of the passengers was sitting on top of her seat belts. It's also sad to think that a simple Disney-style "pull on the yellow tab" could have potentially helped prevent this. I hope that this (and all) theme parks learn from this incident to ensure that this never happens again.

September 26, 2021 at 2:15 AM

From what I've been reading regarding this incident, there were basically three main points of failure, any of which could have prevented it from happening.

1. The seat being used was empty on the previous cycle, but the operator did not unbuckle the belt before allowing the new group of guests to board.
2. The operator confirmed that the belt was buckled, but didn't look to make sure the belt was properly positioned on the rider and failed to see it was actually buckled behind her.
3. Upon a warning being thrown (pure guess, but possibly due to the belt not being unbuckled and rebuckled), the operators not only overrode it and ran the ride with passengers aboard, but were able to override a safety critical warning in the first place.

Regardless of whether it was poor training or negligence, the fact that it was not one mistake but three that were required for this to occur throws the park's safety standards into serious question. I visited this park back in 2014 and was thinking of going back in the next couple years for the new coaster, but now I'm honestly not sure I'd feel comfortable visiting. #2 and #3 above are particularly damning, as the former is something not even a novice ride operator should overlook and the latter simply shouldn't be possible for someone without maintenance credentials.

Chad, while I've never been a ride operator I have several friends who have, and in general you can't override a warning or error in operating mode. Some can be resolved, such as a warning that a gate isn't secure or a restraint isn't down far enough, but if it can't be resolved then maintenance has to be called in. Usually, to override an error the attraction must be placed in maintenance or manual mode, which should never be done with riders aboard. In this mode, the person at the panel has total control of every element of the attraction, and should a mistake be made, disaster can easily occur (i.e. the Smiler accident).

September 26, 2021 at 6:38 AM

@ kenny vee, during covid, i visited the orlando parks many many times. as a result of low crowds i managed to land in the front seat of BTMRR often. i was nervous every time and my ears were constantly pricked up to hear any clanging sounds coming from the faux locomotive ahead of me. i always breathed a sigh of relief when we made it back to the station house unscathed. you're correct in that being a very gruesome incident.

i used to always have a sense of dread visiting smaller parks, wondering how safe i was on their rides. then, after the texas giant mishap (and later, the smiler accident), i now often feel that way at the larger parks too, along with the aforementioned disney tragedy.

this poor little girl getting overlooked is inexcusable, as are the accidents i mentioned above. parks must drill safety procedures at all times just like pilots doing flight check before take-off. and there needs to be an added abort function that will not allow for any override on this ride (and rides like it) before it is able to operate again, that is if it is able to reopen and if the park survives the lawsuits.

September 27, 2021 at 8:11 AM

What I would like to know is why standard ride ops have the ability to override safety errors on an attraction. On most theme park attractions, when the ride is in the standard operating mode, ANY error will not allow a ride to be dispatched/started. In order to start the attraction, a key (or authorization code) is needed to switch the ride into "hand", "manual", or "maintenance" mode that allows for overriding of errors.

If the drop ride was throwing a seat belt error and was dispatched, that means the operators had the ability and/or authority to switch the operation of the attraction out of the standard operating mode to override the error (or the ride does not lock out on this particular warning). In my eyes, this is more than simple operator negligence, because the operators were either given the key or authorization (if the key is left in the panel) to switch the attraction into "hand" or "maintenance" mode to override the error. Maybe this is a common sensor error, and it was SOP for operators to have the key or code to switch the operation mode, but even if that is the case, for me this is a failure of park management, not from the individual operators. Rides should not be switched out of standard operating mode without an experienced maintenance person present, period.

September 27, 2021 at 9:23 AM

I've never been to this park but reading this makes me think we have found the Mt Olympus of the west.

September 28, 2021 at 5:45 PM

Thanks AJ and Russel. I hate it when trying to look for a more optimisitic outcome fails on me. Looks like a no excuse failure.

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