Ride operator error led to death of Orlando amusement park: report

Operator error is believed to be the main cause of the death of a 14-year-old boy who slipped from his seat during a drop ride at a Florida amusement park and plunged over the sidewalk, officials said Monday.

Nicole ‘Nikki’ Fried, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, announced the findings of a field investigation report by a forensic engineer into the March 24 incident that killed Tire Sampson from St. Louis, Missouri at ICONPark in Orlando.

Fried said the report showed the operator of the park’s FreeFall ride, the world’s tallest freestanding drop tower at 430 feet, “made manual adjustments to the ride that made it unsafe.”

The Quest Engineering & Failure Analysis, Inc. report states that manual manipulations were made to the seat Sampson was sitting in to allow the harness restraint opening to be loosened, apparently to accommodate the older teen. of 300 lbs. Fried said the harness restraint opening was “almost double that of a normal restraint opening range.”

Fried said the adjustment by the individual operator, who was not identified in the report, allowed FreeFall’s sensor lights to come on, “inappropriately satisfying” the ride’s electronic safety mechanisms. and allowing the ride to operate “even if Mr. Sampson was not properly secured in his seat.”

“This report answers the question of what happened mechanically as our investigation now enters the next phase of how and why it happened as we consider potential sanctions as well as any rule changes and regulations needed to help prevent future tragedies,” Fried said. during a press conference.

The report showed that the average restraint opening for the other seats in the ride was 3.33 inches, which is considered “normal.” Sampson’s seat was adjusted before the ride began to an opening of 7.19 inches, according to the report.

“While slowing the ride, Tire Sampson slipped through the gap between the seat and the harness” and fell dead, according to the report.

The forensic engineer who wrote the report said his conclusions were based in part on a review of the ride, video of the incident and a re-enactment using two individuals, one 6ft 3in, the other 6 feet 5 inches, and both weighing between 200 and 300 pounds.

“During our investigation, two individuals were positioned in a seat with an opening ranging from 6 to 10 inches. Both individuals were able to slide through the restraint opening unassisted,” according to the report.

The forensic engineer’s investigation concluded that the ride “did not experience any mechanical or electrical failure”.

The report also found that “there are many other potential contributions to the cause of the crash”, but did not elaborate.

Fried did not respond to questions from reporters and said she declined to comment further until the investigation is complete.

She said the FreeFall ride will remain closed indefinitely.

Fried said she spoke to Sampson’s parents before the press conference to tell them about the forensic engineer’s report.

State Representative Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said at the press conference that the manufacturer’s guidelines for the FreeFall specifically state that the maximum rider weight is 250 pounds.

“The Sampson tire weighed over 300 pounds. So, yeah, it’s not within the manufacturer’s guidelines,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she was “very disturbed” by the report. She said she had been in contact with Sampson family attorney Ben Crump.

“As you can imagine, the family is in shock,” Thompson said. “You send your 14-year-old son away for spring break and he doesn’t come back alive. So they’re in shock.”

ICON Park said in a statement to ABC News on Monday that he was “deeply troubled” by the report’s findings.

“We are deeply troubled that preliminary findings from the state’s investigation indicate that a sensor on the Orlando FreeFall attraction, which is owned and operated by the SlingShot Group, was improperly fitted after the sensor was initially secured in place,” the statement read. . “ICON Park is committed to providing a fun and safe experience for families. We will continue to support the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in their ongoing investigation.”

SlingShot Group, the ride’s operator, did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment on Monday.

The company said in a statement after Sampson’s death that it was “heartbroken” about the incident and was cooperating with authorities and ride officials in the investigation.

ABC News’ Victoria Arancio contributed to this report.

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Harold B. McConnell