ST. LOUIS – The mother of a 14-year-old boy who fell to his death from the Orlando FreeFall ride spoke publicly for the first time in St. Louis about her son’s death.
Tyre Sampson died on March 24 when he fell from the drop tower attraction at ICON Park in Orlando while visiting from Missouri on spring break. His mother, Nekia Dodd, was joined by Michael Haggard, her attorney, for a news conference Tuesday in downtown St. Louis about Sampson’s death.
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The boy’s mother said Sampson was her “personal teddy bear” and a “gentle giant.” Dodd said her son was a go-getter and a loving young man. She described receiving the phone call the night her son died as heart-wrenching. Dodd said her concern when she received the phone call was making sure someone was with her son and comforting him since she wasn’t with him.
“To get a call over the phone and not to be there as a mother to comfort ... that’s very disturbing. It’s heart-wrenching,” Dodd said. “It’s heart-wrenching. I couldn’t do anything for my son, but I have the phone. I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t hold him. I couldn’t hug him. I couldn’t do anything.”
She said the last time she saw her son was when he came back to the home to pick up a charger before leaving for Florida. Dodd said she told him, “Oh you came back to give me a hug. I actually said my last hug.”
“As he’s backing out my door, he turns around and says I’ll see you Saturday or Sunday. That was my last time speaking to my son. And that Sunday I was waiting for my son to come home. Because that’s what he told me ... So to get a call to say he’s not coming back. I’m still like in shock. This is a nightmare and it’s still a nightmare,” she said.
Dodd and her attorney spoke after they filed a lawsuit Monday in Orange County against Funtime Thrill Rides, the manufacturer; Slingshot Group, the owner-operator in Florida; and ICON Park, which leased the space.
The lawsuit alleges the ride’s operators should have known that riders could be “subject to unreasonably dangerous and foreseeable risks, and that serious injury and death of the occupants in the ride could result.” While most free-fall rides have a shoulder harness and a seatbelt, the Orlando FreeFall ride had only an over-the-shoulder harness. Adding seatbelts to the ride’s 30 seats would have cost $660, the lawsuit said.
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During Tuesday’s news conference, Haggard reiterated the boy’s death could have been prevented by a seatbelt. Haggard also said the operator failed to post warnings about proper height and weight restrictions.
“Somebody manipulated the seats, somebody changed the size of this harness and what it can fit. So the question is who did that, when did they do that and who directed it?” Haggard questioned.
“It’s disgusting. So it’s like, you didn’t want to miss a dollar, but you stripped me of my son,” Dodd said. “So yeah, it’s disgusting.”
Dodd’s attorney said witnesses said the teen was also denied entry in at least one other ride at ICON Park because of his size - and the same should’ve happened for the Orlando FreeFall ride.
“In their manual, it says no one can ride this ride if they are over 287 pounds,” Haggard said.
Last week, an initial report by outside engineers hired by the Florida Department of Agriculture said sensors on the ride had been adjusted manually to double the size of the opening for restraints on two seats, resulting in Sampson not being properly secured before he slipped out and fell to his death.
“What’s really interesting about the Department of Agriculture’s findings is that this was intentionally done. You know having a sign up or not is a mistake. Maybe employing a scale might be a mistake,” Haggard said. “Manipulating a safety device that then, for lack of a better term, tricks the proximity sensor to say green light is ready to go because it’s been intentionally manipulated is a matter that I think law enforcement is going to be looking at in this case.”
The attorney for the company that operates the ride, Orlando Slingshot, released a statement about the lawsuit. It reads: