Tying orange, blue and white balloons to the fence outside the former site of the Orlando Free Fall drop tower, where his son Tyre died a year ago Friday, Yarnell Sampson said a quick prayer.
Sampson said he had trouble sleeping in recent days as the anniversary of 14-year-old Tyre’s death approached. He wore a shirt featuring a photo of his 6-foot-2, 383-pound son in his football uniform above the words “Gentle Giant” as he explained the balloons were the colors of Tyre’s team, the East St. Louis Flyers.
“This is my mission. I’m not going nowhere,” he said. “Justice for Tyre will always be the case. His legacy is more important than anything in the world.”
So much has happened in the year since Tyre slipped out of his restraint and fell to his death.
The state started and concluded an eight-month investigation into the accident, finding ride operator Orlando Slingshot at fault. Orlando Slingshot denied the allegations but settled with the agency and committed to taking down the Free Fall.
Sampson and Tyre’s mother, Nekia Dodd, settled their civil lawsuit with Orlando Slingshot and landlord ICON Park on International Drive but are continuing their legal battle against the ride’s manufacturers.
And now, with the Free Fall reduced to stray components and a few bolts in the ground, Sampson said he is turning his attention to ensuring lawmakers pass state Sen. Geraldine Thompson’s ride safety bill. He hopes the legislation, named after Tyre, will help prevent other families from going through what his did.
He plans to visit Tallahassee in the coming weeks to urge lawmakers to pass it.
“I’m praying that with the Most High’s blessings, this thing can get passed sooner rather than later,” he said at a press conference Friday. “No other child should have to die on an amusement park ride.”
Sampson and his lawyer, Ben Crump, said they applauded Thompson’s efforts to make Florida’s rides safer, calling the Tyre Sampson Act “a step in the right direction.”
The bill prevents Florida’s smaller attractions operators from making unauthorized adjustments to a ride’s restraint systems, as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services determined Orlando Slingshot did with safety sensors on two of the Free Fall’s seats.
It would also require operators to submit more detailed safety and operational documentation to the state. Under the proposed legislation, the agriculture agency would be granted the authority to establish minimum training standards for attraction employees and conduct regular, unannounced ride inspections.
An amendment Thompson added to the bill at the urging of Tyre’s family would require rides to have secondary safety restraints like seat belts for attractions that raise riders more than 100 feet. The teen’s family and a safety expert have said they believe a seat belt could have saved his life.
But Crump said Sampson and his lawyers remain concerned about a companion bill, also filed by Thompson, that would shield public records in an active ride investigation from public request until an inquiry ends.
“Transparency leads to truth; truth leads to justice,” Crump said. “… ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant,’ and we have to make sure we have transparency not only in this injustice but in all injustices that happen in our state.”
Standing outside the former site of the Free Fall drop tower, attorney Ben Crump, representing Tyre Sampson’s father, Yarnell Sampson, called today “a day that will live in infamy in Orlando, Florida” and within the tourist industry.
Today has been one year since Tyre’s death. pic.twitter.com/v6hynlJcj9
— Katie Rice (@katievrice) March 24, 2023
Standing outside the ride, Sampson thanked Orlando Slingshot and ICON Park for being proactive and working with his family, and he reiterated that he would like to see a memorial to his son at the ride site.
Tyre was an honor roll student with a 4.0 GPA who had a bright future, Sampson said, adding that his football team went undefeated in its conference. Orlando Slingshot has said it plans to start an academic and athletic scholarship in Tyre’s name.
“His life was lining up to be great. So guess what? I have to be greater for him,” Sampson said.
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