Former employees of an indoor playground say they often operated a King of the Hill inflatable the same way a Wichita family reportedly used it the day a 5-year-old boy flew off the ride and died.
The two male former employees — a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old — said Jesse Zogleman, manager of Pure Entertainment, taught them and other employees how to operate the ride last year. The employees asked not to be identified because of concerns for their safety and future employment.
Both said they helped supervise the King of the Hill unit at KidFest, an annual event held in November at Century II. They worked more than a year for Moonwalks For Fun Inc., which holds licenses for equipment used by Pure Entertainment.
"He (Zogleman) told us to put the kids up on top and run into it and launch the kids, and they'd go flying in the air," one former employee said.
"We honestly did not feel comfortable doing it, but that's the way he showed us."
Five-year-old Matthew Branham died March 22 after falling from an inflatable at Pure Entertainment, near Kellogg and Tyler, and hitting his head on a concrete floor.
According to reports, the child and several older family members were on or near the King of the Hill unit during the facility's "open bounce" session.
The ride is designed like a large inflatable mattress — flat except for a bulge in the middle — and is surrounded by a 2-foot-high inflatable barrier. The unit, sometimes called King of the Mountain, was produced by China Cheer, a Chinese manufacturer.
People playing alongside Matthew on March 22 included the boy's mother, grandparents, a 17-year-old boy and a 21-year-old woman, police said. At some point, Matthew flew over the barrier around the ride and landed on the floor outside it.
Duane Zogleman, owner of Moonwalks For Fun Inc., has said the child's fall was the result of customers misusing the equipment.
"The unit wasn't used in the manner it was intended," Duane Zogleman said a few days after the incident. "We want everyone to know exactly what was going on."
But Wichita police are looking into reports that Matthew's family members, who were regular customers of Pure Entertainment, were mimicking a maneuver they had seen employees perform on previous occasions.
"We have heard that, yes, employees showed people how to conduct that maneuver, that exercise," said Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz. "It's part of our investigation."
Jesse Zogleman declined comment and referred questions to his lawyer, Mark Schoenhofer. Schoenhofer did not return repeated calls.
Todd Shadid, a Wichita lawyer representing Matthew's parents, also declined comment.
'No safety factors'
Amusement industry experts say the King of the Hill is inherently riskier than many inflatables because of its low, 2-foot-high barrier. The object of the ride is for children to start at the outer edges and scramble up toward the middle, usually walking or crawling, in a race to be "king of the hill." The barrier is intended to keep riders from rolling off the sides of the unit.
"There's no engineering or safety factors that have been built into an attraction like this. It's not enclosed," said Ken Martin, an amusement ride safety consultant in Richmond, Va.
"If you get 10 big kids on one side and one little kid on the other, there's a chance someone can fly off," he said.
The former Moonwalks For Fun employees said they never saw user's manuals or any written instructions for how to operate the rides they supervised. Usually Jesse Zogleman, who managed the business, would briefly demonstrate how to use each unit and offer guidelines for how many people should be on a ride at once, they said.
At the KidFest event, attendants were told to "jump onto the sides of the ride — the inflatable part — and push air toward the middle," one former employee said.
"We had a few kids not hit right back where they were launched off," he said. "A few got scared and would be crying about it and stuff. We had to help them off."
Martin, the safety expert, called the maneuver "completely wrong and extremely dangerous." He added that ride attendants should "have absolutely no interaction of that type with any inflatable" ride.
"Any operator should be making sure that people on the ride are properly using the ride and providing instruction," Martin said. "They're the people in authority. They're the people who you trust."
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating circumstances surrounding Matthew's death, including potential safety concerns with the design of the ride itself. In December 2007, a 3-year-old Washington boy died when two men playing on a King of the Hill unit fell off and landed on the boy, who was standing nearby.
In an interview at Pure Entertainment last month, Duane Zogleman said three employees were working in the building the day Matthew died, but none witnessed his fall.
He said he didn't know how long the family had been jumping on the King of the Hill unit or whether any employee had shown them how to properly use the ride. He also didn't know if anyone warned the family that what they were doing could be dangerous.
"Parental responsibility is still the most important thing," Duane Zogleman said last month. "People have to watch their own kids."
But "we do call people down" when they misuse equipment, he added. "I've got my grandkids here and they come all the time. I don't want them to get hurt. ... We make sure we enforce the rules.
"The only time you have a problem is if you overload a unit or use it for a use that's not intended," he said.
Marla Barngrover, a Wichita mom who visited Pure Entertainment two days before Matthew's death, said she saw four teenage employees jumping on the King of the Hill ride with smaller children onboard.
"I just remember thinking that if they're participating and bouncing, they're not really watching what's going on," Barngrover said.
Julie Rains also was at the facility with her two children during an open bounce session March 20. She said she pulled her 5-year-old son, Ty, off the King of the Hill unit after she saw him fly several feet into the air.
"We weren't given any instruction on any of the specific rides," she said.
One former Moonwalks For Fun employee said he once asked Jesse Zogleman if it was safe to jump onto the sides of the King of the Hill ride with small children onboard.
"It was kind of like, 'Don't worry about it. Nothing's going to happen,' " he said.