Orlando FreeFall restraint locked when teen fell, did not function as intended, independent safety inspector says

‘This young man did nothing wrong,’ inspector says

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ORLANDO, Fla. – A longtime independent ride safety inspector and expert witness said the ride manual for the FreeFall drop tower — obtained by News 6 from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services which is now responsible for investigating the accident — shows that the ride maker and ride operator failed 14-year-old Tyre Sampson.

“This young man did nothing wrong,” Ken Martin said. “It’s the owner operator’s responsibility to inform the rider what the requirements are. I don’t understand why there are failures on multiple levels. Failures at the manufacturer’s level, failure at the owner-operator level. Basically, the weight limit in the ride manual is there.”

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One page of the manual lists the maximum rider weight as 130 kilograms, around 286 pounds. Sampson’s football coach said Sampson weighed 320 pounds.

Another page of the manual describes a limitation regarding “large people.”

It warns to “be careful when seeing if large guests fit into the seats. Check that they fit within the contours of the seat and the bracket fits properly. If this is not so, do not let this person ride.”

“The most spectacular thing that the industry has done lately is they put sample chairs outside the ride before you get into the cue line,” Martin said. “Those model chairs are for you to sit down in and sit to see if you fit. If that chair existed at the entrance that would be your first level of safety. It didn’t.”

Martin said the manual makes it clear that it would be difficult if not impossible to start the ride if all of the lights on a computer screen were not green. Green lights indicate to the ride operator that the restraint bars are locked down.

Martin also said the preliminary accident report makes it clear that when the ride stopped, Tyre Sampson’s bar was still locked down, even when Sampson was no longer in the seat.

“The safety bar has multiple positions,” Martin said. “And one of two things happened: the rider was able to lock it in the first position or the rider was able to hold the bar down across his chest.”

Martin believes Sampson was too big to ride.

“A restraint system is not a one-size-fits-all,” Martin said.

News 6 asked Martin, “Just because the bar was down when the ride stopped doesn’t necessarily mean that it worked you’re saying?”

“Yes exactly,” Martin said. “I’ve seen people come out of lap bars that have been locked.”

Ritchie Armstrong, CEO of the Slingshot Group, said Tuesday the company has suspended operations of both Orlando FreeFall and Orlando SlingShot at ICON Park.

“We are heartbroken by the loss of Tyre Sampson and absolutely devastated for his family and loved ones. We have suspended the operations of the Free Fall ride and the Slingshot ride at Icon Park. We are fully cooperating with the authorities at the state and local levels who are investigating this tragic incident. We plan on providing additional information in the coming days, as we learn more,” Armstrong said in a statement Tuesday.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.