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October 19, 2021

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Father recounts Iowa amusement ride accident that killed son

ALTOONA, Iowa — The father of an 11-year-old boy who died following an accident on a popular boat ride at an Iowa amusement park said that his son and other family members were trapped by the ride's seat belts when the boat carrying them flipped.

In an interview broadcast Tuesday on ABC's “Good Morning America,” David Jaramillo recounted what happened when the boat capsized Saturday night on the Raging River at Adventureland Park in Altoona.

“When it flipped over, all of us were trapped in the safety seat belts," he said. "I see the silhouettes of my sons trying to grab each other, grab us. They want us to help them. We couldn't do it.”

Michael Jaramillo died Sunday from his injuries, and the morning news program reported that his older brother was hospitalized in critical condition in a medically-induced coma. Two other riders who were also family members suffered injuries.

“I feel like Adventureland robbed me of my baby,” said Sabrina Jaramillo, Michael’s mother. “I will never get a chance to see him grow up.”

Investigators have not released a hometown for the Jaramillos, but court documents from earlier this year list a Cedar Rapids address.

The ride uses a conveyor belt to move large circular rafts through rapids. After the boat carrying six people overturned, emergency responders and witnesses helped to free the riders.

The cause of the accident — the second deadly incident on the ride in five years — is under investigation. A representative from the Polk County Medical Examiner’s office said Tuesday that Michael Jaramillo's autopsy was still underway.

Nationally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is only aware of 17 deaths associated with amusement attractions since 2016, agency spokeswoman Patty Davis said Tuesday. Injuries that require emergency room visits are far more common, averaging 34,700 per year from 2017 to 2019 before plummeting during last summer’s coronavirus-related park closures, she said.

Adventureland said the ride has been closed since the accident and that the family-owned park is cooperating with an investigation by state inspectors. Attorney Guy Cook, who is assisting with the park’s response, said the inquiry would be comprehensive.

“Safety is the number one priority at Adventureland,” Cook wrote in a text message. “The Raging River ride has been in operation for nearly four decades. It is a safe ride.”

The ride opened for the first time during the 2021 season Saturday after a state inspection a day earlier found it was in sound working order, Adventureland said. The park, which is located just east of Des Moines, expects around 600,000 visitors this year.

The Raging River has been a staple of the park since 1983. Adventureland advertises the ride as a “great way to cool off with the whole family,” warning participants may get soaked.

In June 2016, seasonal employee Steve Booher, 68, and another worker helping riders in and out of boats were jerked off their feet when the ride began moving unexpectedly. Booher fell onto the conveyor belt about 3 feet (1 meter) below and became wedged between a boat and a concrete sidewall, where his head was repeatedly rammed until the ride’s operator shut it down.

Booher died days later. An autopsy found the cause of death was trauma to the skull and brain.

The park's insurer last December also settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Booher’s wife of 47 years and their adult children for a confidential sum. The lawsuit alleged that the ride operator was negligent by prematurely starting the ride in violation of park rules and leaving it in operation even as Booher was down with injuries and patrons yelled at him to stop.

Cook said there was no commonality between the two accidents, but that he could not comment further on Saturday’s accident until the investigation is complete.

Fred Dorr, an attorney for Booher's widow, Gladys, said Tuesday that Gladys has been haunted by the image of the boys “trapped underneath in seat belts in an upside down raft" and reliving her husband's death.

He said operator error was the main issue in Booher's case, while determining how the raft flipped would be central to the latest accident.

“They’re saying it’s a safe ride but you've had two people die in five years. How safe is that?” Dorr said. “You can try to explain it away, but that’s an issue.”