Family in shock, trying to stay strong for critically injured girl

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The family of the 11-year-old girl whose scalp was ripped off when her long hair became tangled in a carnival ride at the Cinco de Mayo Festival spoke publicly for the first time Sunday night about what happened.

"I took these pictures after her surgery and this is my ‘Lulu,'" said the mother of Elizabeth Gilreath, Virginia Cooksey during a news conference at Nebraska Medicine where her daughter is being treated. "Lulu" is the affectionate nickname the family has for the girl with the long red hair. "This is one of her favorite things. She loves her hair."

After sliding off a carnival ride seat, her hair was caught in the still spinning mechanism. "It went on for 5-10 minutes everybody told me while it ripped and pulled my daughter around," said her father, Timothy Gilreath. "They don't even know if the muscles will work and my daughter will be able to see again. That is our baby."

Surveillance video from a nearby business recorded what happened to Elizabeth, showing the ride slow at South 24th and N streets around 1:30 p.m. Jolene Cisneros ran over to stop the ride. "It was still spinning. I had to stop it with my hands and turn it to the point where it was to the platform." That's when she saw Elizabeth bleeding on the floor of the ride. "I was like, you're going to be okay and she's just like, where's my pretty hair? I didn't know it was my child, I just knew there's a child and she needed help."

"There's nothing we could do and so I stood up and I was like yelling, I was like, 'Stop the ride! Stop the freaking ride!" said Elizabeth's friend, Aushanay Allen.

The family calls Jolene a hero. "I wanted her to live," said Jolene. "Please don't let her pass. My prayers are with her. I want her to know that she's loved and cared about and it's going to be okay. She's still here with us and I'm grateful for that."

As for the operator of the ride called King's Crown, he's seen in the surveillance video running from the chaos, possibly to get help, but the family is shocked that he didn't act sooner. "I don't understand how this man didn't not notice my daughter laying on the ground," said Cooksey.

"She was tortured," added Timothy.

Though emotional Sunday night, Cookey said she's trying to hide her tears in the hospital room. "I can't let my daughter see it. I have to stay strong." Strong and thankful for her daughter's doctors. "Surgical doctors played a big role and they saved my daughter's life and I cannot thank them enough."

Elizabeth can't speak right now. She is communicating through hand squeezes. Doctors are hopeful her eyelids will heal and that she will be able to grow her hair back.

Elizabeth came to the carnival with her cousins. At first her parents didn't know she was going, but she called later to tell her dad. The parents don't like these rides, saying they don't trust how quickly they can be set up and taken down. A manager of the company that owns the ride said safety is their priority, but the family asks why the company hasn't reached out to them. They think the operator of the ride should be held accountable in some way.

The carnival company is cooperating with the investigation to determine exactly what happened.