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Elected officials call for review after fatal Adventureland ride
State found safety issues with ride where Marion boy died
By Daniel Lathrop - Des Moines Register
Nov. 29, 2021 6:00 am
A legislator representing the Marion boy who died in July at Adventureland Park will send a "letter of inquiry" asking state officials to look at improving ride regulations to prevent future deaths.
State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, said last week she intends to ask Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts for answers on changes that would "allow this never to happen again."
"This is a tragedy for Michael's family," she said.
A state investigation released earlier this month found Adventureland violated 17 safety standards in connection with the incident on the Raging River ride that killed 11-year-old Michael Jaramillo and seriously injured his brother and father. The Division of Labor, in an order the Des Moines Register obtained, said the violations included failing to supervise riders, using unapproved replacement parts and having deficient evacuation procedures.
Since the findings were made public, officials across the political spectrum have called for more answers and additional review.
U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, who represents Marion, told the Register that further investigation is needed. "Michael's death was an absolute tragedy and his family deserves answers as they continue to mourn the loss of their son," Hinson, a Republican, said in a written statement.
State Rep. Molly Donahue, a Democrat representing Marion, called for legislative hearings. "My heart goes out to the family and friends of Michael Jaramillo, who was tragically killed in the accident at Adventureland in July. It is important for the Legislature to take a close look at this case, and the possible solutions to make sure this doesn't happen again," she said.
Among the issues that could be raised: The inability of state regulators to issue fines related to violations, whether existing inspection policies and procedures are effective, and what went wrong that allowed a ride with violations, some that allegedly were long-standing, to pass inspection.
What inspectors found
According to the state order, Adventureland's management violated safety standards because the park:
- Used parts that hadn't been approved by the manufacturer to replace the weirs that guide rafts, and did not do associated engineering work.
- Used Flex Seal, a product marketed primarily through TV infomercials, rather than approved patches, to fix leaks in rafts' flotation bladders. A state report said the Jaramillo raft after the incident had a deflated bladder, and a state report said it had been repaired earlier in the day.
- Didn't test rafts following repairs.
- Didn't adequately document repairs.
- Didn't provide continuous, direct supervision of riders.
- Failed to update the ride's evacuation plan when the park's layout changed.
- Used "deficient" forms for daily inspections.
- Conducted inadequate training for employees on ride operation and evacuation.
At the time of the July 3 incident, according to the order:
- The ride's evacuation route was blocked by setup of a July 4 fireworks display.
- The manager on duty and the ride's maintenance crew had no documented training on the ride.
- One of the ride's weirs was detached from the trough.
- Operators responded inadequately to "back-to-back" releases of rafts.
- A rope linking the flotation tube to the seating area of the Jaramillo's raft was improperly tied, and came loose.
Longtime Adventureland attorney Guy Cook disputes the findings, saying the order contained inaccuracies.
"The order of the state contains factual errors and inaccuracies. Noteworthy, the order does not determine that any of the matters cited were the cause of the accident," Cook said.
The violations finding comes despite the fact that a state ride inspector had signed off on the ride's condition and the park's written policies for operating it on July 2, just one day before.
"The issues cited in the order, if true, would have been in existence when the state inspector signed off on the ride following an inspection the day before the accident," Cook previously told the Register.
No word on criminal charges
The Division of Labor has no authority to issue civil fines, but can recommend misdemeanor charges to prosecutors for violating "any order or rule" issued by the labor commissioner in connection with ride safety.
Roberts declined to comment whether labor officials had or were considering recommending that criminal charges be filed against owners of the Altoona-based park. Typically those cases have involved operating rides without a valid permit, but the law does not limit what other violations could be considered criminal.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said last week he is not currently considering charges. "Our office has not received any request from a law enforcement agency to review any of the facts related to this matter," he said in an email.
Cook said he is confident the park's owners and its employees are not guilty of a crime.
"I am a former federal prosecutor. There are no facts or circumstances whatsoever that would justify a criminal investigation or liability," he said.
Information released so far doesn't answer the question of whether someone could be criminally at fault, said University of Iowa law professor Mihailis Diamantis, whose research focuses on corporate crime.
"It doesn't seem that there's enough information available yet to weigh whether the facts support criminal charges against the park," Diamantis said.
In some circumstances, failure to properly maintain equipment could be considered involuntary manslaughter, he said.
In Iowa, such charges can be brought against both individuals and corporations — if a company failed to perform a legal duty or if corporate officers were aware of misconduct.
Altoona Police Department detectives participated in the Division of Labor investigation and have closed their case without criminal charges, said Lt. Alyssa Wilson.
"The Altoona Police Department assisted the Iowa Division of Labor in this heartbreaking accident and loss of a child. We do not have regulatory oversight for Adventureland rides," Wilson said in an email.
The Altoona Fire Department, which responded to the incident, referred questions about whether the department's fire marshal had taken any civil or criminal action in relation to the case to a law firm representing the city. Attorney Mike Richards said he was not able to comment.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Attorney General's Office lacks jurisdiction to open its own investigation. "We did not participate in reviewing the order," said spokesperson Ashlee Kieler. "This incident concerned consumer safety, which is the responsibility of the Department of Labor, while consumer fraud is our responsibility."
If the Jaramillo family files a civil claim against the state, the Attorney General's Office would, however, investigate the question of whether state officials' actions were negligent.
Meanwhile, Cook said Adventureland owners are taking action to ensure the Raging River and other rides are safe.
"This heartbreaking tragedy was the result of a number of unexpected, unintended and extraordinarily unusual factors all coming together at once," he said.
"Adventureland Park has investigated the circumstances of this tragic accident to ensure it does not happen again and engaged significant resources in doing so," Cook said.