As she watched construction workers dismantle the amusement park ride where her 14-year-old son died from a horrific fall, Nekia Dodd hoped no families would suffer as she has this last year.
Tire Sampson plummeted to his death from the Orlando FreeFall drop tower in ICON Park on March 24 — a ride described by its operators as the world’s tallest freestanding drop tower. Bystander video showed the teen slipping from his seat seconds after the ride began its nearly 400-foot (122-metre) drop.
“All I am left to do is wonder, (is) imagine” what the rest of Tire’s life would have been like, Dodd told CNN Wednesday.
Wearing a shirt with her son’s picture on it, Dodd walked around the ride that took her son’s life; Closed since that day, it is now surrounded by a chain link fence and construction equipment.
“When I lost my son, I wasn’t there,” Dodd said after her visit to the amusement park — her first time in Florida. “The last few breaths, the last few words I wasn’t there. I had to do something… to bring me a little closer to him… He took his last everything on that ride.”
‘TYRE SAMPSON WAS NOT PROPERLY SECURED’
The Orlando FreeFall raised passengers seated in individual seats 400 feet in the air. The seat then tilted forward 30-degrees before the gondola was released in a free fall that would reach 4G’s. The ride then braked at approximately 100 feet above the ground, according to an investigation by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates amusement rides in the state.
The owner’s manual for the tower lists the ride’s weight limit at 287 pounds. Tire was just over 6 feet tall and weighed 383 pounds, according to the autopsy report. A lawsuit filed by the family alleged that there were no posted weight limits nor scales at the ride site.
Following the tragedy, Florida officials hired forensic engineering firm Quest Engineering & Failure Analysis Inc. to investigate the incident. A harness sensor in Tire’s seat had been “manually loosened, adjusted and tightened,” allowing for a greater gap than normal between his harness and his seat, the firm’s investigation found.
That “mis-adjustment” of Tire’s “harness proximity sensor improperly satisfied the ride’s electronic safety mechanisms, causing both safety lights to illuminate and allowing the ride to commence even though the ride was unsafe,” the report said.
Attendants were not instructed on “weight requirements or proper loading procedures and were trained that if the indicator light on the seat illuminated, the patron was safe to ride,” according to the state’s Bureau of Fair Rides report. And the attendant inside the ring that day had only been on the job for three days and was considered a “trainee,” according to the report.
During the ride, the 14-year-old “slipped through the gap between the seat and harness,” according to the state report. It concluded that “the cause of the accident was that Tire Sampson was not properly secured in the seat.”
The autopsy report said Tyre died of blunt force trauma.
‘WHY DIDN’T THEY REFUSE HIM?’
“When I got the call… everything stopped. I knew. I knew,” Tyre’s mother said.
The teenager had been visiting Florida with his family and a friend from St. Louis. Dodd has spent the last year trying to make sense of how her son could die while trying to have fun with his loved ones.
“After I found out exactly what happened, why didn’t they refuse him?” Dodd wondered. “He was refused on other rides, why not this one? I know he is a child… he was like, ‘I want to ride with my friend.’ I get that. As an adult or the ride attendant, you should have made that call. His feelings would have been hurt but he would still be here with me.”
The family’s attorney blamed the companies’ drive for money as the reason for the accident. “This operator manipulated and changed the seats to allow for larger people to sit there, which is for one reason: for profits. It’s not to turn away that $35 dollar ticket, that is what Tire lost his life for,” attorney Michael Haggard told CNN.
The family filed a lawsuit on April 25 in state court against a number of defendants associated with the ride, including ICON park, the ride’s operator, Slingshot, its manufacturer, Funtimes Handels, or the manufacturer of the ride’s chairs, Gerstlauer Amusement Rides.
On Wednesday, the family said that they have settled their lawsuit against ICON Park and Slingshot but not against the foreign manufacturers.
The terms of the settlement were not disclosed by the family. Dodd said she has created a foundation in Tyre’s honor that will focus on schools and scholarships to honor her son. She said that he was a “giver” and she wanted to follow in his footsteps.
A spokesperson for ICON Park declined to comment on the terms of the settlement out of “respect for the family.” The Orlando Eagle Drop Slingshot has not returned CNN’s request for comment.
Scott Rost, a local attorney for the ride’s Austria-based manufacturer Funtimes, told CNN: “On behalf of our client, we are saddened by the tragic death of Tire Sampson,” and added that the company is “pleased that the park and operator Has reached a settlement with the family.
CNN was unable to contact Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, which is based in Germany, for comment.
Rost declined to comment on the merits of the family’s lawsuit but did note that “the Florida Agriculture report shows that there were alterations to the ride beyond what was manufactured.”
FIGHTING FOR NEW SAFETY MEASURES
All week, the road in front of the ride was blocked to traffic, as a large tower crane worked to take down the ride. Pieces of the large structure were placed on flat bed semi-trucks and taken away.
“I honestly didn’t think that was going to happen,” Dodd said of the ride’s removal. “I do appreciate that they have honored my request of removing the ride, but I am still without a son. I guess if I put numbers on it, it is 25% of closure.”
While the family hopes to find justice in the wake of their loss, they are also fighting to change laws in a state that set records for the number of tourists last year — many of whom came to enjoy the amusement parks.
The family worked with state Sen. Geraldine Thompson to introduce the “Tyre Sampson Act”: A bill that would require permanent amusement rides to have additional safety requirements before rides open, additional training of operators and additional oversight from the state. The bill, SB 902, still has a long way to go with committee hearings.
“The sooner this is enacted, the safer Florida is. It is that important. This can happen again,” Haggard, the family’s attorney, said. He said Dodd would join him in Florida’s state capitol to support the legislation.
While the state’s inquiry has concluded, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating whether anyone will be held criminally responsible for the incident, a spokesperson confirmed to CNN.
“When questioned about adjustments made to harness proximity sensors, maintenance personnel asserted their rights under the Fifth Amendment” rights, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture report.
Based on that information, and other information developed during the investigation, the department said Orlando Eagle Drop Slingshot “has committed multiple violations” of Florida law, including “operating in a manner or circumstance that presents a risk of serious injury to patrons.”
“Our investigators are communicating with the State Attorney’s Office,” a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said. “No determinations have been made regarding criminal charges at this time.”
The Florida State Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
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