A newlywed Denver couple’s road trip to Arches National Park in Utah this summer ended in tragedy when a metal gate at the park exit swung open, impaled the couple’s car and decapitated the woman, a 25-year-old Ugandan human rights activist.
Esther Nakajjigo, who’d moved to Colorado in 2019 to attend the Watson Institute in Boulder, was killed instantly.
In October, Nakajjigo’s husband, Ludovic Michaud, and her parents filed a $270 million wrongful death claim — a precursor to a formal lawsuit — against the park, alleging that the gate should have been secured to prevent it from swinging into the road.
“The National Park Service has, in fact, known for decades that an unsecured metal pipe gate creates an undetectable hazard and dangerous condition for its park invitees,” the claim reads, noting at least three other instances since 1988 in which people in cars were fatally impaled by such gates.
This incident happened June 13 just before 2 p.m. as the couple were leaving the park, according to the claim. A video of the crash shows Michaud was driving and Nakajjigo was in the front passenger seat as they drove toward the gate at about the same speed as other vehicles, according to a sheriff’s report.
Without warning, a gust of wind apparently dislodged the arm of the metal gate, which swung into the car’s path. There was less than a second between when the gate started to move and when it struck the car and killed Nakajjigo, according to the report.
Park staff told investigators the gate was usually left unsecured, and that typically the gate’s own weight kept it in place, so it was not locked in place by any other means.
“For want of an $8 basic padlock, our world lost an extraordinary warrior for good,” the claim said.
Nakajjigo grew up in Uganda and at 17 was recognized by the United Nations for her work for women — she’d donated her college tuition money to start a nonprofit community health center that provided free reproductive health services to young women. Nakajjigo gained national notoriety in Uganda and created a reality TV show that helped child mothers stay in school and develop life skills, according to the claim. The show saw an audience of 6.3 million each week, and Nakajjigo was named Uganda’s “Young Personality of the Year.”
After moving to Colorado, Nakajjigo met her husband — he’d moved to the area from France — and the pair married in March, just as the coronavirus pandemic began to make news. They headed to Arches National Park as soon as the park reopened in June, eager for an adventure.
They went on a hike and had a picnic, and were driving to get ice cream when the gate swung into their path.