Adventureland negligence led to boy's 2021 death on Raging River ride, family's lawsuit claims

·10 min read

The family of an 11-year-old Marion boy who died in a ride malfunction at Adventureland "now lives with the nightmare of the loss of a beloved child and brother, their lives forever altered," says a lawsuit they filed Thursday, almost a year after the tragedy.

Michael Jaramillo drowned when the raft he and his family boarded on Adventureland's Raging River ride overturned on July 3, 2021, as they visited the park to celebrate his older brother's 16th birthday.

The 55-page filing alleges poor maintenance, lack of training and Adventureland managers' decision to operate the ride in the face of "serious problems" led to Michael's death and left his brother and father with severe injuries.

More: Michael Jaramillo funeral: Boy killed on Adventureland ride remembered for joy he brought others

The suit also contains new allegations that raise questions about state oversight at the Altoona park.

In an interview, attorney Ryan Best, representing the family, said the suit is about holding Adventureland's then-owners, who have since sold the park, accountable for putting patrons at risk.

A witness took this photo of the raft the Jaramillo family was in when it capsized July 3, 2021, on the Raging River ride at Adventureland Park in Altoona, Iowa. Michael Jaramillo, 11, later died of injuries he suffered. His brother David was critically injured.
A witness took this photo of the raft the Jaramillo family was in when it capsized July 3, 2021, on the Raging River ride at Adventureland Park in Altoona, Iowa. Michael Jaramillo, 11, later died of injuries he suffered. His brother David was critically injured.

The suit, which refers to Adventureland by its two-word corporate name Adventure Land, says Adventureland President and CEO Michael J. Krantz "was particularly responsible to make certain that Adventure Land’s rides, such as the Raging River, were properly funded for maintenance and safety purposes. That proper maintenance and safety protocols were followed. That ride manufacturer’s design, installation, operation and maintenance recommendations were observed. That ride maintenance and repairs were not hastily and cheaply conducted in a sub-standard manner not recommended by a manufacturer … resulting in exposure to injury and damage by Adventure Land patrons."

In an email, attorney Guy Cook, who represents the Krantz family, said "safety is, and always has been, the number one priority at Adventureland."

"The numerous claims, assertions, and allegations of the lawsuit will be specifically addressed in court filings. Allegations are not facts," he wrote. "For nearly 40 years each Adventureland ride has undergone ... detailed annual safety inspections by the State of Iowa and rigorous daily inspections by park maintenance and ride operators. This includes the Raging River ride.

"The tragic Jaramillo accident was the result of a number of extraordinarily unusual factors coming together."

Adventureland's new owners not targeted; state inspector named

The suit does not name as a defendant the park's current owner, Palace Entertainment, which purchased it and related assets in late 2021. What was then Adventure Lands of America Inc., owned by the Krantz family of Des Moines, continued to exist and retained legal liability in what is known as an asset sale.

The suit names Michael Krantz and other senior managers as individual defendants, a move that opens the way for attorneys to pursue personal assets as well as the company's if they are successful in their claims.

More: Adventureland opens under new ownership. What amusement park fans should know about 2022 season

The suit also alleges that the son of B.J. Burriola, the state inspector who signed off on the ride's safety the day before the Jaramillo boy's death, had worked at Adventureland since 2018 — raising new questions about the July 2, 2021, state inspection, which a subsequent investigation would show failed to identify major safety problems.

The suit does not name Burriola, his son or the state as defendants.

A spokesperson for the Iowa Division of Labor, which is responsible for ride inspections, did not respond to a request for comment.

What happened in the accident on the 'Raging River'

According to the suit, Michael; his parents, David and Sabrina; his brothers, David and Gus; and cousin Nyla Pettie were at the park to celebrate the younger David's birthday, when they got on the simulated river rapids ride. It had reopened that day after being closed for more than a year for repairs — including the installation of a new control panel.

A photo sits next to the casket of Michael Jaramillo, the 11-year-old killed on the Raging River ride at Adventureland, during his funeral at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines on Saturday, July 17, 2021.
A photo sits next to the casket of Michael Jaramillo, the 11-year-old killed on the Raging River ride at Adventureland, during his funeral at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines on Saturday, July 17, 2021.

Sabrina Jaramillo told state investigators in an interview that the raft almost immediately began bumping along the bottom of the ride's water-filled course and started to fill with water. She said that as the raft rounded a bend, it flipped.

Her husband suffered a severe shoulder injury, but managed to escape the overturned raft with the rest of the family. Michael and the younger David, however, sitting in adjacent seats with a shared seat belt, were trapped underwater for what the suit alleges witnesses will testify was "seven to ten minutes." It says a passenger who jumped off another raft and workers installing a nearby fireworks display finally were able to pull them from the water.

The boys were taken by ambulance to a hospital, where Michael was pronounced dead. David was placed in a medically induced coma and remained in the hospital for a month.

A Register investigation later found that there have been major accidents on similar rides across the country and around the world going back nearly 40 years, some of which also involved rafts overturning.

David Jaramillo, 16, of Marion at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines, Thursday, July 22, 2021. He had been hospitalized since July 3 with injuries he suffered in an accident on the Raging River ride at Adventureland Park in Altoona that claimed the life of his 11-year-old brother, Michael.
David Jaramillo, 16, of Marion at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines, Thursday, July 22, 2021. He had been hospitalized since July 3 with injuries he suffered in an accident on the Raging River ride at Adventureland Park in Altoona that claimed the life of his 11-year-old brother, Michael.

What the lawsuit against Adventure Lands of America alleges

The Jaramillos' suit contains hundreds of factual allegations and seeks unspecified monetary and punitive damages "to punish Adventure Land for disregarding known risks and to deter similar such conduct in the future by Adventure Land and others."

More: Adventureland kept rides afloat with ‘duct tape and bubble gum,’ ex-rides manager told investigators

Among the claims against the park and its managers are that:

  • They did not "properly maintain and repair its attractions, including the Raging River ride."

  • The Raging River ride "was staffed with three employees who had never worked on that ride prior to that day and never been trained on that ride prior to that day."

  • The people operating the ride had not been trained in the use of a newly installed control panel, which was malfunctioning.

  • The park "continued to operate the Raging River ride with patrons aboard despite experiencing serious problems with rafts striking the bottom of the ride, air bladders within the rafts deflating, and mechanical equipment failures."

  • The park and its employees "did not call 911 at any time regarding the emergency."

  • Repairs to the ride were "hastily and cheaply conducted in a sub-standard manner not recommended by a manufacturer."

  • Maintenance employees who made the repairs were not trained to do so.

  • Ride operators and assistants "were not trained on how to evacuate the Raging River ride in an emergency."

  • The 1,700-pound raft on which the Jaramillos were riding "had been pulled out of service that same day for repairs, but placed back into circulation without proper testing."

  • The park's actions significantly delayed firefighters and paramedics called to the scene.

The suit also alleges that the rafts on the ride, which opened in 1983, had been modified with parts "not approved by the original manufacturer," Intamin Amusement Rides. It says that, although Intamin stated the rafts' service life was 10 years, they had never been replaced in the ride's 39 years of operation, and that the modifications had not been approved by an engineer.

Why was the ride allowed to open?

The Raging River ride was closed because of "computer problems" for all but two weeks during the park's COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 2020 season and had remained closed until just before the 2021 July Fourth holiday, the suit says.

It says that during that time, the new control panel was installed on the ride and additional changes were made.

The day before the ride reopened, the Iowa Division of Labor's Burriola conducted an inspection of the ride and certified it as "satisfactory," the suit says.

Raging River at Adventureland
Raging River at Adventureland

In November, the state found there were, in fact, 17 safety violations in the operation of the ride that day including:

  • Using parts that hadn't been approved by the manufacturer to replace the weirs that guide rafts, and failing to do associated engineering work.

  • Using 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 accident had a deflated bladder that had been repaired earlier in the day.

  • Not testing rafts following repairs.

  • Not adequately documenting repairs.

  • Not providing continuous, direct supervision of riders.

  • Failing to update the ride's evacuation plan when the park's layout changed.

  • Using "deficient" forms for daily inspections.

  • Conducting inadequate training for employees on ride operation and evacuation.

Cook, the lawyer for the Krantz family, has previously said those findings were in error and that — if true — the violations should have been detected during Burriola's inspection.

The suit alleges that the air bladders that keep the raft afloat — each has eight — failed in multiple rafts that day but were put back into service after repairs without testing.

Those repairs, according to the suit, were made by employees who had never been trained to make repairs on the air bladders.

A park employee told investigators, according to the suit, that the ride could not be properly tested that day because of malfunctioning water pumps.

According to the suit, the park's maintenance director disabled the ride's automated maintenance record-keeping system that day, and a maintenance employee conducted a safety inspection "from memory" and without a written checklist.

Despite the later findings, Iowa Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts has said through a spokesperson that the July 3 inspection was adequate and that no employees have been disciplined in relation to the accident.

More: After violations found at Adventureland, officials call for further review in connection with boy's death

The ride remains closed under the new Adventureland owners, who have said they are still determining whether to refurbish it or remove it and make way for a new attraction.

The suit does not allege that employment of Burriola's son at the park affected Burriola's decision to find the ride safe to operate.

What was the emergency response like?

The suit contains allegations similar to prior reporting by the Register that the response after the boat capsized presented serious issues.

According to the suit:

  • Firefighters arrived to find a locked gate and were greeted by Adventureland employees who were unaware of the accident.

  • First responders "could not unlock the heavy chain securing the access gate."

  • Park employees never called 911.

  • Altoona police and firefighters whom Adventureland paid to have on duty at the park "only became aware that the Family’s raft had flipped from the 911 dispatcher, after bystanders called 911."

  • An obstructed emergency route meant "it took six to ten firefighters over four minutes just to transport Michael on a stretcher into an ambulance."

  • Adventureland "employees could not identify a supervisor" to arriving firefighters.

  • Some emergency responders were forced to "respond by running a significant distance on uneven terrain while carrying medical equipment."

  • Adventureland was aware that those "layout and design issues" had delayed the response to the 2016 death of an employee on the ride, but had not made modifications despite being asked to do so by the employee's widow.

  • Adventureland "did not have procedures in place to timely provide life-saving medical attention" and "did not have emergency medical evacuation procedures in place for disruptions in the Raging River ride’s operation."

In addition to Michael Krantz, the suit names as individual defendants Tim Heger, Adventureland's general manager at the time of the accident, director of rides and maintenance Todd Kurovski, and Zach Peiper, another Adventureland manager.

David and Sabrina Jaramillo at their attorney's office Thursday in West Des Moines. Their son Michael, 11, died after he was trapped underwater on Adventureland’s Raging River.
David and Sabrina Jaramillo at their attorney's office Thursday in West Des Moines. Their son Michael, 11, died after he was trapped underwater on Adventureland’s Raging River.

Jaramillo parents: It could have happened to anyone there

Speaking after the suit's filing Thursday afternoon, David and Sabrina Jaramillo reflected on the unwanted journey their family has taken over the past year.

David Jaramillo said the cruel twist of fate that claimed their son could have happened to almost anyone who braved the 45-minute wait to ride Raging River at Adventureland that day.

"It was our first time going, and we just happened to be picked out of everyone who was there," he said.

"People need to know how dangerous these parks are," his wife said. "People say they’re safe, but they’re really not safe."

Daniel Lathrop is a staff writer on the Register's investigative team. Reach him at (319) 244-8873 or dlathrop@dmreg.com. Follow him at @lathropd on Twitter and at facebook.com/IowaGadfly

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Lawsuit claims Iowa boy's death a result of Adventureland negligence