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State seeks $250,000 fine for Orlando amusement park company over teen's death

nikki fried freefall death
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said her department was proposing legislative changes to ensure all state amusement rides are safer.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says the operator of the drop tower - from which 14-year-old Tyre Sampson fell to his death - should never again hold a ride permit in Florida.

The operator of an Orlando amusement park ride from which a Missouri teenager fell to his death should pay a $250,000 fine and can never hold a ride permit in Florida again, state officials said Tuesday.

Tyre Sampson, 14, fell to his death from the 400-foot drop tower ride operated by Slingshot Group in March.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is issuing an administrative complaint indicating multiple state violations made operators leading to the teen's fatal fall.

The fine is one of the largest administrative penalties the department has sought, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said during a press conference.  

An autopsy showed that Tyre, a football player and honor roll student from the St. Louis area, suffered numerous broken bones and internal injuries in the fall, and his death by blunt force trauma was ruled an accident. It showed Tyre weighed 383 pounds, well above the ride manual’s weight limit of 287 pounds.

“The department’s investigation has concluded that Tyre fell from the drop tower due to changes made by the ride operators,” Fried said. “He was sitting in one of two seats where the proximity sensor was manually repositioned to allow a larger restraint opening than the ride’s other seats, and because his seat’s harness proximity sensor had been improperly adjusted the ride was allowed to commence even though it was unsafe and led directly to his fall.”

Fried also announced the department’s investigative findings and proposed several legislative changes to attractions in the state.

“A young boy’s loss of his life is not going to go in vain," Fried said. “What we can do is make sure our laws don’t allow this to happen to anyone else.“

Tyre's family is suing the owner, manufacturer and landlord of the ride, claiming negligence and failure to provide a safe amusement ride.

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents Tyre's father, Yarnell Sampson , released a statement saying the department was making a significant step toward accountability.
“This week, Tyre’s family will experience their first holiday season without him. His family will always have an empty seat at the table – that anguish deserves accountability in the highest sense from the entities responsible for this tragedy,” Crump said.
Since Tyre’s death, Slingshot Group suspended two employees after the findings of an internal investigation. The company also brought outside firms into its fold to improve training and safety practices, said Trevor Arnold, an attorney representing Slingshot Group.

“We took these steps to ensure continued operations conform to applicable standards and recommendations,” he said.
The investigation also revealed SlingShot Group conducted minimal training on the ride.
“A training manual did not exist. Neither of the attendants nor the operator had read or seen the manufacturer manual, nor had operating documents been provided to the attendants or the operators that were on duty,” Fried said.
As a result, the department is also seeking the revocation of the ride’s operating permit in the state and will be forwarding all of its findings to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to consider criminal charges.
Fried said her department is committed to seeking legislative changes to improve the safety of state attractions.
“We’ve expanded and refined that framework into a list of promised proposed legislative objectives to help prevent the kind of tragedy that happened to Tyre from never happening again. Our goal here is to identify the issues that we believe played a direct part in his death,” she said.
Fried proposed nine changes:

  •  Expanding signage posting requirements for patron qualifications
  • Increasing the number of safety system checks during the permitting process.
  • Updating the term “major modifications” to include any modifications of safety settings.
  • Adding department authority to adopt rules for employee training and creating a minimal standard for operating, training, retaining, and training program documentation.
  • Increasing reporting requirements for the documentation of maintenance.
  • Requiring all administrative devices to undergo wide commissioning and certification as part of permitting requirements.
  • Adding a requirement that the operator must provide the department with location and other data for the manufacture of all tolerance settings and specifications related to the patron restraints and safety systems.
  • Increasing the required accident reporting for amusement rides.
  • Requesting new positions with the sole mission of inspecting permanent ride facilities, traveling shows, and fairs to monitor safety and verify training of on-site staff during operations.

Arnold told WMFE the SlingShot Group supports Fried’s proposed changes.
“We share their goal to prevent a tragic accident like that involving Tyre from ever happening again,” Arnold said. “We are and have been working closely with FDACS and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in their respective investigations.  We have cooperated with the authorities from the moment the accident occurred, and will continue to do so with full transparency.”

The ride, at ICON Park on Orlando's tourist-friendly International Drive, is being dismantled.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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Joe Mario Pedersen