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Iowa amusement park permanently closes ride after 11-year-old’s death

The Washington Post 2/7/2023 Jonathan Edwards
Visitors arrive at Adventureland Resort in Altoona, Iowa, in July 2021. © Charlie Neibergall/AP Visitors arrive at Adventureland Resort in Altoona, Iowa, in July 2021.

David Jaramillo Sr. screamed for amusement ride workers to come help. Moments before, he had been trapped underwater with five family members, and although he and several others had freed themselves from the 1,700-pound raft that had flipped over, two of his sons were still down there.

And they were drowning.

“Please help me! My kids are dying!” Jaramillo yelled on July 3, 2021, according to a lawsuit he filed against Adventureland Resort in Altoona, Iowa.

No one from the amusement park came, the Jaramillo family alleges in the suit filed in June in Polk County District Court, and by the time another parkgoer freed Michael Jaramillo from under the raft, the 11-year-old was blue. He died the next day of what the medical examiner would later determine was “freshwater drowning,” the suit states. His brother, David Jr., survived but was seriously injured, it adds.

On Friday, more than 1½ years later, Adventureland General Manager Bill Lentz announced in a letter posted to the amusement park’s website that it was permanently closing the Raging River ride, which had been temporarily shuttered since the fatal 2021 accident. Michael Jaramillo’s family is suing Adventureland for wrongful death and negligence, accusing the amusement park of not properly repairing the rafts or staffing the ride with enough employees to ensure they could help people in an emergency.

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The Jaramillos’ lawsuit is one of several legal actions against amusement parks in recent years after deadly accidents involving children. In 2017, the family of a 10-year-old boy settled with the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan., after the boy died while riding a 17-story waterslide. In 2021, a 6-year-old girl’s parents sued Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Colorado when their daughter fell 110 feet to her death on the Haunted Mine Drop. And last year, a 14-year-old boy’s parents sued ICON Park in Florida after their son died of blunt force trauma from riding the Orlando FreeFall, which plunged nearly 400 feet at speeds of more than 75 mph and was advertised as the “world’s tallest free-standing drop tower.”

A 6-year-old fell to her death on an amusement park ride. Operators didn’t see she wasn’t belted, report says.

Lentz did not mention the Jaramillo family’s lawsuit against Adventureland in his letter announcing Raging River’s closure. A spokesperson for the amusement park directed The Washington Post to Lentz’s letter in response to a request for comment.

“The decision comes after months of examination of the ride, working closely with its manufacturer to identify what enhancements each would need to meet our operating standards,” Lentz wrote in the letter. “Based upon that review, the best path forward is to close Raging River, and focus on enhancing the Adventureland experience elsewhere.”

Ryan Best, a lawyer representing the Jaramillo family, said the decision to close the ride is unsurprising given the safety problems that the family and state officials have uncovered in separate investigations.

“The ride’s closing is recognition that the ride was dangerous when the Jaramillo family rode it on July 3, 2021,” Best said in a statement to The Post. “The family is pleased to hear that the ride will no longer operate and that no other family will be placed at risk.”

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Six members of the Jaramillo family — Michael, his two brothers, their parents and a cousin — boarded Raging River that day about 7 p.m., the Des Moines Register reported. The amusement park had closed the ride in 2020 to install some new electronics and reopened it on July 3 for the first time in more than a year.

Michael’s mother, Sabrina, told state investigators that their raft started bumping against the bottom of the ride’s artificial waterway almost as soon as it was launched, according to the Register.

“It kept hitting the walls, and it kept hitting the bottom again,” she told investigators. “And it finally flipped.”

Strapped in with seat belts, the family was trapped as the raft — a 1,700-pound fiberglass boat kept afloat by air bladders — kept moving along the course, the lawsuit states. Two of Michael’s family members unbuckled their seat belts and escaped from under the raft. Still, both of them were allegedly tossed around by the ride’s rapids and struck repeatedly in the head.

In the chaotic moments after the raft overturned, Michael’s father’s shoulder got stuck between the raft and some sort of structure below the surface, according to the lawsuit. “Underwater, with his shoulder trapped, David Sr. could see his family members drowning and struggling for their lives,” it alleges.

He jerked to dislodge his shoulder, a movement that broke multiple bones in his shoulder, the lawsuit states. Now free, he undid his seat belt and got out from under the ride. So did his wife. After they did, the raft came to rest near the ride’s final curve.

Michael and his brother, David Jr., were still trapped underwater, and Jaramillo tried to lift the raft, but because his shoulder was broken, he could not, according to the lawsuit. And so he and his wife begged for help.

“Nobody from Adventure Land saw the overturned raft with the two children trapped underwater,” the lawsuit states. “Nobody from Adventure Land heard David Sr. and Sabrina’s screams for help while two of their children were trapped underwater.”

Instead, the ride kept going. A fellow patron came upon the Jaramillos, jumped off her raft and swam through the rapids, according to the suit. She dove under the overturned boat, freed the two boys from their seat belts and got them out one by one.

“Both children’s faces were blue and purple when they were removed from the water,” the suit states.

When investigators with the Iowa Division of Labor inspected Raging River after Michael’s death, they found 17 safety violations, including shoddy repairs and improper documentation of those repairs, according to the suit. They determined that the ride posed “an imminent danger to the public health, safety, or welfare” and barred the park from operating it until remedying the safety concerns, the lawsuit adds.

In late 2021, the local owners who founded Adventureland in 1974 sold the amusement park to a global chain.

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