Colorado relies on private, third-party inspectors to make sure amusement parks are free of accidents like the one this month that claimed the life of a 6-year-old girl, who plunged to her death from a ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.
Just four years ago, state regulators suspended one of those inspectors for his work at the Washington County Fair. The regulators said Bill Hoggard of Joshua, Tex., did cursory checks on at least two rides before assembly at the fairgrounds while they were still on their transport truck.
One of the rides he certified as safe ended up malfunctioning and was in “a condition that posed a serious safety threat to the public,” state officials claimed in later court filings. The Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the Washington County Fair ran backwards once it was operational despite Hoggard’s assurances of safety, Colorado officials said in court documents. The ride's emergency stop button didn't work, according to that document, filed in a Denver District Court lawsuit.
Hoggard claimed in court documents that it’s not unusual for Colorado carnival rides to be inspected before they are set up despite state regulations barring that approach. He also contended in court that the state is lax in ensuring rides meet their annual inspection requirements.
State officials dispute Hoggard’s accusations, but after a protracted battle, he was allowed to resume inspecting rides in Colorado, even as state officials maintain he admitted he sometimes took a “complacent” approach to inspections. He inspects amusement park rides in other states despite losing membership in the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials due to findings of ethical lapses related to the dispute in Colorado.
The details of the investigation into Hoggard’s inspections are made clear in records provided to The Gazette by the state Division of Oil and Public Safety, which regulates amusement parks in Colorado, requested after Wongel Estifanos's fatal fall from a ride at at Glenwood Caverns.
Estifanos, a Colorado Springs elementary student, fell 110 feet from the Haunted Mine Drop at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. The death is being investigated by the Division of Oil and Public Safety, which is located in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, along with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Glenwood Springs.
“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,” Cher Haavind, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Labor, said in a statement. “Also reviewed will be interviews with all parties involved to determine to the best of our knowledge what occurred.”
Two deaths occurred on amusement park rides in Colorado from 1999 through 2017, according to RidesDatabase.org , which contains data collected by a now-defunct ride safety organization, SafeParks.
There have been other mishaps. A handful of patrons suffered broken bones and at least two people have been ejected from the Alpine Coaster at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, state injury reports show. Two “potentially life-threatening injuries” occurred in October 2014 on a Durango zipline, according to state data. In another incident, an inspection found frayed center lift cables in 2010 on bungee trampolines at a resort, state data shows.
To protect the public, the state largely relies on private inspectors like Hoggard, who performed about a fifth of the amusement ride permit inspections in Colorado from 2009 through 2016. Hoggard didn't inspect ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, state records show.
The state maintains a list of 47 people authorized to conduct annual inspections at the 171 facilities licensed for amusement rides in Colorado.
In 2016, D. Scott Narreau, then a program manager at Colorado’s Division of Oil and Public Safety, determined that Hoggard violated state regulations when he inspected rides for the Washington County Fair before they were operable. He fined Hoggard $2,000 and suspended him from the state’s inspection list for one year.
Hoggard filed a lawsuit in Denver District Court against Narreau, now a supervisor at the state agency, claiming that he was being singled out for something that regularly occurs. He said in court documents that it’s not unusual in Colorado for rides to be inspected before they are “completely assembled to the point of running.” He said an employee of the Division of Oil and Public Safety had allowed Hoggard to take that approach on as many as 10 other occasions.
Hoggard also claimed in court documents that the state doesn’t always rigorously enforce the annual inspection requirement for amusement park rides.
“In 2016, I had 35 clients for whom I did inspections,” Hoggard claimed in his court filing. “I am personally aware that several clients have been given inspection deferments and been allowed to operate for as long as six months without an inspection when an inspector was not available.”
Greg Johnson, the public safety manager in the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety, denied the state let annual inspections slip and allowed disassembled rides to pass inspections. Although the state did not look retrospectively at Hoggard’s past inspection work, it moved to suspend him to protect the public, Johnson added.
Johnson said the agency has one employee who audits inspection work and operations at amusement parks.
“There are a lot of different paths he takes to look at the industry in the state of Colorado,” Johnson said.
Hoggard in court documents said that at Narreau’s insistence he returned to the Washington County Fair to re-inspect the Tilt-a-Whirl ride after it was assembled. In an interview with The Gazette, he denied ever putting the public in potential peril.
“I re-did all the paperwork and sent it in, and they issued the stickers,” Hoggard said. “I’ve been doing this for over 35 years, and I’m an excellent mechanic, and I know how this stuff works. Scott Narreau is a bureaucrat who’s never gotten a ride up and running.”
Mahesh Albuquerque, the director of the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety, upheld the suspension of Hoggard and fine after meeting Hoggard to go over issues.
“Mr. Hoggard also made several statements about his lack of familiarity with the Colorado Amusement Regulations, and that he is sometimes complacent with regard to amusement inspections,” Albuquerque wrote in his order upholding the suspension. “Mr. Hoggard conveyed a general lack of commitment to following the Colorado Amusements Regulations.”
After Hoggard’s Colorado suspension, the state notified the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, which certifies amusement ride inspectors, of the issues it had found with Hoggard’s inspections.
That organization found that Hoggard violated multiple provisions of its code of ethics and engaged "in conduct which is detrimental to the interests and welfare of the association.” The organization’s board kicked Hoggard out and banned him from membership in the organization.
After he lost his membership, Hoggard sued Narreau, claiming his Colorado suspension was retaliatory. He also sought re-certification as a third-party inspector in Colorado. The state held his re-certification request in abeyance because he lacked accreditation from a national organization.
Hoggard eventually dropped his lawsuit and in July 2018, the state agreed it would conditionally re-certify him for amusement ride inspections. He had to notify the state at least 72 hours before conducting an inspection and was limited to certifying rides in Colorado, not traveling carnival rides located in other states that would eventually come to Colorado. The state also required Hoggard to obtain continuing education credits within six months of certification as an inspector in Colorado.
Hoggard agreed to those conditions.
State records show that Hoggard resumed his work in Colorado, inspecting a go-kart track in Colorado in 2018 and again in 2019. Hoggard said the state’s suspension cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, though he said he has continued to inspect amusement rides in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Kansas.