ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – An investigation into a 14-year-old boy’s fatal plunge from the Orlando FreeFall thrill ride determined that the boy’s death was caused by changes made to the seat’s sensors. Now, the Florida Department of Agriculture is seeking a $250,000 administrative fine against the ride’s operator, officials announced Tuesday during a news conference.
Tyre Sampson, who was visiting Orlando from Missouri, slipped from his seat on the 400-foot-tall attraction and fell to his death while on spring break. The Orlando FreeFall attraction at ICON Park has been closed since the boy’s death. The Slingshot Group operated the Orlando FreeFall and the Orlando Slingshot, but after the teen died, owners of ICON Park demanded that the company suspend all ride operations.
An independent forensic engineering firm hired in the department’s investigation revealed the operator made “manual adjustments to the ride resulting in it being unsafe” and allowed the harness restraint opening to be “almost double” of the normal opening range, Fried said earlier this year.
The report shows the harness sensor of the seat Sampson was in was “manually loosened, adjusted, and tightened to allow a restraint opening of near 7 inches.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said during Tuesday’s news conference that the manipulation of the sensors allowed to the ride to begin and “led directly to his fall.” The investigation also showed the attendants lacked proper training for the attraction.
“The department’s investigation revealed there was minimal training conducted on the ride. A training manual did not exist,” she said. “Neither of the attendants nor the operator had read or seen the manufacturer manual, nor had an operating document been provided to the attendants or operators (who) were on duty.”
Fried said the administrative complaint was submitted, which reveals that ride attendants “were specifically instructed to seat ‘larger guests’ in seats 1 and 2,” indicating awareness they knew some seats were adjusted after market to accommodate larger guests.
Attorneys Ben Crump and Bob Hilliard, who were hired to represent Sampson’s family, issued the following statement after Fried’s announcement:
Fried also said the department will forward its investigative report and findings to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to consider criminal charges.
“There was intent to change the sensors on there. Whether it rises to criminal intent will be up to the discretion of not only the sheriff’s office but the ultimate prosecutors of that county, if they so choose, to bring criminal charges,” she said.
In response to Fried’s comment, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office released the following statement:
Since the boy’s death, the state has been planning to propose legislation to “help prevent the kind of tragedy that happened to Tyre from never happening again.”
State Rep. Geraldine Thompson said the legislation, which she said would be called the Tyre Sampson Law, would address multiple issues, including signage, inspections, training and more.
“When the millions of people who visit Florida come to this state, we want them to know that there is oversight, that there is accountability, that there are inspections, that there are requirements for training,” she said.
The update comes over a month after The Slingshot Group announced the ride would be taken down. However, the timeline for the ride to be taken down was put on hold until the department finished its investigation.
Now that the investigation has concluded, Thompson said they are expecting the ride to be removed, although she did not provide a specific timeframe.
An autopsy report revealed the teen weighed 383 pounds and was just over 6 feet tall when he fell from the ride. According to a manual produced by the manufacturer of the ride, Funtime Thrill Rides, the maximum weight allowance for Orlando FreeFall was listed as 130 kilograms, or 286 pounds.
Weeks after the boy’s fatal fall, attorneys for his family formally filed a lawsuit 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.”