Glenwood Caverns ride where girl died was designed without safety harnesses
Most vertical drop amusement park rides are designed with shoulder restraints, but the Haunted Mine Drop at Glenwood Caverns where a 6-year-old girl died Sunday was not.
The reason, according to a television interview its designer gave in 2017 when the ride was opened, was to make it more exciting, “a little bit more scary.”
Ride designer Stan Checketts of Providence, Utah, told Fox31 that the ride was intentionally designed without shoulder harnesses even though most others – including those of his own design – had them.
Checketts did not immediately respond to calls from The Denver Post on Tuesday.
Checketts founded and later sold S&S Sansei, one of the biggest amusement ride design manufacturers in the world. The company has about 150 tower drop rides internationally — the latest in China — and none are without a shoulder harness, according to Josh Hays, the company’s director of sales and marketing.
Hays said the Haunted Mine Drop is different from the ones they design because it is a free-fall ride, whereas the ones they manufacture are all propelled by pneumatics.
“All of our towers have shoulder restraints,” Hays said. “When it comes to safety we don’t want to reinvent the wheel when we have a design that works really well.”
Hays said modern rides cannot operate if any of their safety features are not properly affixed.
“All our rides are electronically based to know if a restraint is improperly fastened,” he said. “There are redundancies. A ride cannot be dispatched without all the restraints checked and verified, manually and electronically.”
The Haunted Mine Drop ride only uses a seat belt and has no safety bar, according to a promotional video by Coaster Studios in May 2019 in which a park employee was interviewed. The safety belt system relies on a metal rod that is locked into place across the riders’ laps, according to the video.
Riders sit facing forward and raise their arms and legs at an operator’s direction and then the six-seat platform is released, plunging down through a mine-shaft-like tunnel. The ride takes about 2.5 seconds and drops 110 feet.
A counterweight and a braking system are used to slow the ride as it approaches the bottom, according to the video.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a bad idea,” Hays said. “I won’t criticize a design without knowing the intricacies of that design. Safety is a priority for all, but that doesn’t mean mistakes don’t happen.”
Amusement ride manufacturers worldwide must adhere to safety standards. In the U.S. it is ASTM International, Hays said.
RES in Switzerland designs all of its drop towers with “individual lap bars … giving more freedom to the rider compared to the over-the-shoulder restraint,” its website says. Its rides’ height restrictions are set at 41 inches.
The Haunted Mine Drop had a height restriction of 46 inches, according to the park’s website. Other vertical drop rides across the country vary in height restrictions, from as short as 37 inches to as tall as 51 inches depending on the length of the drop, according to various amusement park websites.
The Tower of Doom at Elitch Gardens in Denver drops riders 200 feet at 60 mph. Its minimum height for a rider is 48 inches.
A typical 6-year-old female is about 42 to 49 inches tall, according to the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention.
“The challenge here is not knowing the forces imposed on the rider,” Hays said. “A 6-year-old is a hard age, too, because some are really tall or really short. Ideally, rider restrictions are based on height, that’s how we design things.”
State officials who regulate amusement park rides were expected to begin their investigation Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if Glenwood Caverns Amusement Park had any accidents reported since 2017, but accident data gathered by nonprofit Saferparks showed an incident in Glenwood Springs in August 2011.
Although the specific park is not identified, it shows that the breaks on an alpine roller coaster were not properly applied and the vehicle in which a 57-year-old woman was riding collided with the one in front of it. The woman suffered a broken back, according to the database.
Only 13 amusement ride injuries — two of them fatal — were reported in Colorado between 2010 and 2017, according to RidesDatabase.org.
Authorities have not released the name of the girl who died Sunday, but did say she was from Colorado Springs and had been on vacation to Glenwood Springs with her family. The circumstances of her death have not been released. They said park employees immediately attempted to resuscitate the girl until EMTs arrived shortly after the incident at about 7:45 p.m. She was declared dead at the scene. An autopsy is expected to be performed.
Amusement rides in Colorado must be inspected annually before the public is allowed to ride them, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment that regulates them. Parks hire an inspector from an approved list of 47 people provided by the agency. There are 171 facilities licensed for amusement rides in the state, according to the agency’s website.
An CDLE spokeswoman said the ride has consistently passed inspections since it opened, the last in June this year.
“We will look at the current condition of the ride, relying heavily on certified third-party inspector’s observations, as well as observations and notes from prior safety inspections,” spokeswoman Cher Roybal Haavind said in a statement. “Also reviewed will be interviews with all parties involved to determine to the best of our knowledge what occurred.”
She said the inquiry could take “several days or even weeks” and a report will be issued.
Hays said accident investigations typically focus on the root cause.
“Is there a design flaw or is the park using approved parts approved or a third party?” Hays said. “Are they performing maintenance regularly and operating as prescribed in the operations manual?”
Then there’s the human element, he said, noting that many rides are operated by teenagers.
“You have to make the process of loading and unloading simple and easy to understand so that you can feel confident a teen following instructions can safely load a passenger in,” he said.
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