ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – An attorney representing the mother of a 14-year-old boy who fatally fell from the Orlando FreeFall attraction told reporters Tuesday several seats on the ride had been previously adjusted to fit larger patrons.
“It looks like they have some seats that they directed people to that were bigger,” Michael Haggard said. “Well, if you know that, why are you doing that without finding out how big they are?”
The Orlando FreeFall opened in Orlando’s tourist district in December 2021, billing itself as the tallest free-standing drop tower on Earth, taking up to 30 guests high into the air before dropping them 400 feet at about 75 mph.
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Tyre Sampson, 14, was visiting Orlando from Missouri on spring break when he fell from his seat of the thrill ride on March 25.
Haggard did not specify why the seats were adjusted or when they had been adjusted, but he told News 6 investigator Merris Badcock Sampson had sat in one of the adjusted seats the night he fell from the ride and died. Slingshot Group, the owner operator of the ride, did not return News 6′s requests for comment.
“This is a ride that is absolutely unique,” Haggard said. “In North America, there is an identical ride up at Dollywood that has the option to tilt forward, and it does not. They do not allow it. They do not operate it that way.”
Dollywood’s drop tower is also manufactured by the same overseas company that manufactured Orlando Freefall. Haggard says the Dollywood ride also has an extra seat belt as a backup to the safety harness.
“[The owners of Orlando Freefall] have a weight restriction that is not disclosed to anyone. That is truly amazing because when you start talking about going 75 mph, from 430 feet to an almost sudden stop when you’re tilted, the biggest risk we can all think of gravity is weight,” he said.
“They did nothing to disclose that whatsoever,” Haggard said.
According to the operating manual for Orlando Freefall produced by the overseas manufacturer of the ride, Funtime Thrill Rides, the maximum weight of a patron is 286 pounds. Haggard told reporters Tuesday that Sampson weighed roughly 380 pounds — not 320 pounds as his youth football coach previously told News 6.
“There is a metal detector, so you do not bring your phone on, but there is no sign about weight, and there is no scale. I mean, how that is not more important than a metal detector for a ride like this is kind of amazing.”
Famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the teen’s father, visited the site and reiterated Sampson’s death was “completely preventable.”
“Other than George Floyd’s tragic torture video, I think this is the worst tragedy captured on video that I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Haggard disclosed the manufacturers of the ride, Funtime Thrill Rides, had their employees on-site to train employees of Slingshot Group on how to operate the ride.
“Funtime was here for many months. We believe they finally left in February, while it was being operated,” Haggard said. “I think they probably saw some problems that were going on with the ride before they left, before this happened to Tyre.”
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Haggard did not elaborate further on the alleged problems, and Funtime did not respond to News 6′s emails requesting comment.
An investigation is still underway to determine the cause of Sampson’s fall from the thrill ride. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried said during a news conference last week the state hired a forensic engineering firm, which will look back at the ride’s calibrations and mechanisms in the movement, to assist in the investigation and analyze what may have caused the boy’s fatal fall.
According to the firm’s website, its engineers use the latest science and forensic technology to reconstruct accidents.
“They will help us look at the engineering of the ride and come up with any, as in the Sandblaster incident that we had, they were able to do a root cause analysis for us and tell us exactly where the failure happened,” Richard Kimsley, the Division of Consumer Services director, said during a news conference in Orlando.
Inspectors were back at the thrill ride at ICON Park Monday, testing it yet again and sending the ride carriage into the air, even while leaving the seats on the ground and raising only the top half of the carriage. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released the official “stop operation order,” which became effective March 25, the day after Sampson fell to his death.
The stop order said the FreeFall ride is “considered an immediate serious danger to public health, safety, and welfare and may not be operated for patron use until it has passed a subsequent inspection.”
“We’ll be here a lot,” Haggard said. “There are a lot of terrified witnesses that were on that ride beforehand that experienced some issues and told some people about it ... We have got investigators, you know, talking to a lot of people.”