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Wongel Estifanos and her family. Photo provided by the Dan Caplis Law Firm

The family of Wongel Estifanos, a 6-year-old girl who died on an amusement park ride in Glenwood Springs last month after operators failed to check if her seat belt was fastened, is seeking damages in a wrongful death lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Estifanos Dagne and Rahel Estifanos, the girl’s parents, claim their daughter was killed by “extreme recklessness” of Glenwood Cavern Adventure Park and its operators and are asking for damages to cover grief, impairment of quality of life, emotional stress, fear and anxiety, the funeral and burial costs expenses and financial loss from the death of their daughter. 

The couple filed the lawsuit in Denver District Court and named the amusement park as the sole defendant. 

“They will use this civil action to force the full truth to be disclosed to them, and to the public,” Dan Caplis, an attorney representing Wongel’s family, said in a statement. “Their mission is to protect other families by holding all who are responsible for the killing of their daughter fully accountable, and by sending a loud and clear message to the entire amusement park industry.”

The lawsuit identified the two operators of the Haunted Mine Drop as Steve Ochoa and Toby Williams. A spokesperson for the amusement park declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Wongel Estifanos was sitting on top of a locked seat belt before she died Sept. 5 on the Haunted Mine Drop, which plunges riders more than 100 feet in three seconds, according to a report by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, which oversees amusement parks across the state. 

Because she was not restrained, she fell to the bottom of the ride’s shaft, causing her death, the report stated.

State investigators found that the ride operators’ oversight was among the errors that led to Estifanos’ death. Investigators also found that the operators did not have an adequate understanding of the alarms on the control panel and had inadequate training. 

According to the lawsuit, the Estifanos family traveled from El Paso County to the park as one of their first trips since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Wongel’s uncle took Wongel, his wife, two of his children and another relative on the Haunted Mine Drop. 

Wongel met the 46-inch height requirement for the ride, the lawsuit stated.

“When the ride came to a stop at the bottom of the mine shaft, Wongel’s uncle checked to see whether Wongel had enjoyed the ride,” the lawsuit stated. “He was stricken with terror to see that Wongel was not in her seat.” 

When her uncle saw her body battered that the bottom of the mine shaft, he and other relatives began to scream and tried to get off the ride, but the ride proceeded to pull them up 110 feet in the air, the lawsuit stated.

Wongel died of multiple blunt force injuries, including skull fractures, internal bleeding and lacerations, according to an autopsy report. 

The lawsuit alleges that prior to Wongel’s death, Glenwood Caverns Amusement Park had received complaints from other parents alleging that operators failed to fasten riders’ seatbelts on numerous occasions.

The lawsuit cited an email from a mother of another 6-year-old rider in 2018 who wrote to the park about a teenage boy who did not have his seat belt on before the operators left to deploy the ride. 

“I understood the ride went faster than free fall so (I) 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 mother wrote in the email, which was included in the lawsuit. 

Before deploying the ride, the operators returned to apologize and fastened his seatbelt, according to the lawsuit. 

Another rider emailed the park in 2019 after he said ride operators began to argue with him after he sat on the seat belts and told them he was not buckled in. The passenger continued to insist that he was not properly restrained until the operators confirmed he was not buckled in, the lawsuit said.

Glenwood Caverns did not disclose the complaints from customers to state investigators when investigating Wongel’s death, the lawsuit stated. 

Instead, Wongel’s family and their attorneys became aware of the previous complaints after getting a tip. 

Wongel’s family and attorneys are also asking the court to determine if the operators’ actions rose to a level of recklessness, finding Wongel’s death a felonious killing. Such a finding would remove the statutory cap to non-economic damages in a wrongful death suit, Caplis said. A jury would then decide the monetary amount in damages. 

The civil action is separate from any criminal proceedings.

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.