Orlando FreeFall death one year later. Here’s where things stand

Tyre Sampson’s death prompted investigation, legislation, lawsuit

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – It has been exactly one year since a 14-year-old boy visiting Central Florida on spring break fell to his death after slipping from his seat on the Orlando FreeFall attraction.

Tyre Sampson was riding the thrill ride, known as the world’s tallest free-standing drop tower, on March 24, 2022, when he fell as the ride was plummeting down. The ride took guests up into the air before dropping over 400 feet at 70 mph.

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The ride was new to ICON Park and was open for several months before the boy’s death.

Dozens paid their respects to the 14-year-old and demanded the ride be torn down after the tragedy.

Since the boy’s death, an investigation determined sensors were manually adjusted in the seat Sampson was in, making the ride unsafe and allowing the harness’ restraint opening to be “almost double,” according to a report.

The ride operators agreed to pay a $250,000 fine to the state and take down the attraction, with crews beginning the dismantling weeks before the one-year mark.

Here’s everything that has happened in the last year:

The investigation

The family of Tyre Sampson released balloons on what would have been his 15th birthday, and called for the ride where he died to be torn down.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services started investigating the Orlando FreeFall to determine the events leading up to Sampson’s death.

Commissioner Nikki Fried later announced on April 1 the state hired an independent forensic engineering firm to help investigate. Quest Engineering & Failure Analysis was the same company called in to investigate the Sandblaster roller coaster derailment at the Daytona Beach Boardwalk.

Weeks later, the firm’s investigation found the attraction did not have an electrical or mechanical failure, but the seat the teen was in had the sensors manually adjusted by the operator — Slingshot Group — allowing the ride to operate.

Fried said the operator of the Orlando FreeFall 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.

The firm’s 14-page 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.”

An attorney representing Sampson’s family said the boy’s mother was devastated after the investigative findings were released.

“Just makes it more real that someone really manipulated the ride which caused her son to die,” Haggard said.

Months later, the state announced in November 2022 it was seeking a $250,000 administrative fine against the ride’s operator. Fried said the manipulation of the sensors allowed the ride to begin and “led directly to his fall.” The investigation also showed the attendants lacked proper training for the attraction.

The owners of the thrill ride settled with the state and agreed to pay the fine as well as dismantle the attraction.

The lawsuit

Attorneys for the family of a 14-year-old boy who fatally fell from an Orlando thrill ride last month formally filed a lawsuit against the ride’s operators in Orange County Monday.

A month after the boy’s death, his family’s attorneys filed a lawsuit against the ride’s operators. Funtime Thrill Rides, the manufacturer; Slingshot Group, the owner-operator in Florida; and ICON Park, which leased the space, were among the defendants being sued in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged 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.”

Regardless, the lawsuit points out that the ride did not have seatbelts, which would have cost operators of Orlando FreeFall $22 per seat for a combined $660 for all seats. It also claims the manufacturer and operator of the ride should have made sure:

  • There were visible warnings for riders about height and weight restrictions
  • The ride should not have been able to function if all riders were not properly secured
  • No one should have been able to manipulate or adjust proximity sensors
  • A monitoring system should have been installed to make sure all rider restraints were properly secured
  • A mechanism should have been installed to stop the ride if a restraint was not properly secured

“It’s disgusting. So it’s like, you didn’t want to miss a dollar, but you stripped me of my son,” said Nekia Dodd, the 14-year-old’s mother. “So yeah, it’s disgusting.”

The lawsuit also points out there were safer alternative designs other than the designs used in Orlando FreeFall that would have reduced the risk of the rider coming out of the seat.

Tyre Sampson bill

Florida state Sen. Geraldine Thompson joined Fried for several news conferences following the teen’s death as plans for new legislation was announced to improve safety on thrill rides.

The two, along with former state Sen. Randolph Bracy, introduced the framework for the proposed legislation in August 2022.

The framework included seven proposals that focused on increased signage at thrill rides, additional training for ride operators, increased maintenance reporting, third-party reviews of permanent rides before certification, preventing restraint and safety systems from being adjusted, requiring accident reporting and a new ride monitoring position for unannounced inspections of ride operations.

A bill, named after Sampson, was filed in the Senate in February 2023.

The bill would reset safety standards for amusement rides throughout the state by requiring regular ride commissioning and certification reporting on any attraction that undergoes major modifications, independent testing by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, permanent rides operated for the first time in Florida after July 1, 2023, to have a commissioning and certification report on file, permanent rides to apply for an annual permit, an annual affidavit certifying that the ride was inspected in person, an electronic copy of the manufacturer’s current recommended operating instructions and a display of the ride permit.

It would also allow the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to “conduct unannounced inspections for specified purposes” and revise “the circumstances under which the owner or manager of an amusement ride is required to report an accident,” the bill reads in part.

Orlando FreeFall taken down

The Orlando FreeFall closed after the teen’s tragic death and never reopened.

ICON Park demanded the owners/operators, SlingShot Group, suspend operations of its other attraction, the Orlando SlingShot. ICON Park’s statement said SlingShot Group would not be able to operate rides until a thorough investigation is conducted.

Records released by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the days following Sampson’s death showed Orlando FreeFall employees had fewer than five weeks of on-site experience.

Several people called for the attraction to be dismantled, including the teen’s father.

“I guarantee, you open that ride again, somebody else gonna’ die,” Yarnell Sampson said during a news conference in June 2022. “It should never be operational at all.”

In October, the SlingShot Group announced it would take down the over 400-foot-tall attraction. After the state’s investigation concluded in November and determined the boy’s death was caused by changes made to the seat’s sensors, the SlingShot Group settled with the state by paying a $250,000 fine.

Inspectors went out to the thrill ride at the end of February, and crews were seen beginning the process to dismantle the Orlando FreeFall in early March.

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About the Author:

Brenda Argueta is a digital journalist who joined ClickOrlando.com in March 2021. She graduated from UCF and returned to Central Florida after working in Colorado.