Ten days before the first anniversary of 14-year-old tourist Tyre Sampson’s death on the Orlando Free Fall drop tower at ICON Park, cranes began arriving at the ride to start taking it down.
On Tuesday morning, workers placed weights on a telescoping crane that would eventually extend to reach the top of the 430-foot drop tower as a second crane lifted other components nearby. A fence encircled the ride and blocked off parts of the nearby sidewalk and road.
The ride’s gondola, holding its harnesses and seats, rested at the foot of the tower behind a smaller barrier. It was still attached to the ride as the construction crew prepared the area.
Outside the fence, tourists on spring break walked around the site and peered up at the drop tower.
“I’ve actually never seen a crane this big,” tourist Demetrios Perri, of New Port Richey, said while watching workers from across the street.
Perri said he works in construction as an equipment operator and was amazed by the “massive” scale of the takedown process.
“They’ve probably got a day or two of setup. I’d be shocked if they start taking it down tomorrow, but I’d say within the next day or two,” he estimated. “… This is a big crew. You don’t see this often.”
Free Fall ride operator Orlando Slingshot announced March 7 the ride would begin coming down this week as part of a lengthy process that could go into the following week.
“We hope to have the ride fully deconstructed before the anniversary of Tyre Sampson’s tragic death, and we will continue to work in that direction and give timeline updates as they are available,” Orlando Slingshot attorney Trevor Arnold said in a statement at the time.
Orlando Slingshot hired amusement business Ride Entertainment to coordinate the ride’s removal. Ride Entertainment did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the timeline Tuesday.
Representatives for Big Iron International and Beyel Brothers Crane and Rigging, the companies who own the cranes at the site, declined to comment.
Orlando Slingshot promised in October it would take down the ride after the state’s accident investigation ended. A Feb. 23 final inspection of the ride cleared the Free Fall for dismantlement after the state’s probe concluded in November and parties in the civil lawsuit surrounding Tyre’s death finished their survey of the attraction.
Tyre’s parents are suing Orlando Slingshot, landlord ICON Park and various companies involved in the ride’s manufacturing over his death, alleging negligence.
ICON Park has said it was not involved in any aspect of the ride’s operation and only serves as the Orlando Slingshot’s landlord.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ inquiry into the accident found Tyre, who was from St. Louis, died after slipping through a restraint investigators determined Orlando Slingshot had modified to accommodate larger riders. Tyre, a football player who weighed 383 pounds, was allowed on the drop tower despite exceeding its weight limit by nearly 100 pounds.
Orlando Slingshot initially denied the agency’s claims but settled with the agriculture department last month, paying a $250,000 fine and agreeing to never operate the Orlando Free Fall again.
Tyre’s mother, Nekia Dodd, has said she hopes the ride’s removal “does not remove the memory of this tragedy.” She and Tyre’s father, Yarnell Sampson, have asked for a memorial to their son to be placed at the attraction’s site.
Many out-of-town tourists passing the Free Fall Tuesday said they did not know about the accident.
Chris Sexton, a 21-year-old vacationing from Long Island, said he was unaware of Tyre’s death until researching the area on his phone turned up the accident.
He and his friends Scott Marro, 21, and Adam Barker, 22, said they were disturbed by what they learned but saw it as a “freak accident” that did not affect their perception of Orlando’s attractions.
“There are still plenty of other things to do around here, but it does give you a little bit of caution, and I’m sure for families as well,” Sexton said. “… It wouldn’t stop me from coming here.”
Perri said he does not let his kids on high-thrill rides like the Free Fall because “it’s just too dangerous.”
“You don’t need to go that high in the air to have fun. You can have fun right here playing golf,” he said, gesturing at the Pirate’s Cove mini-golf course nearby.
As crews work to take down the Free Fall, legislators are reviewing bills filed in Tyre Sampson’s name.
One dubbed the Tyre Sampson Act proposes to close gaps in ride safety laws identified during the state’s accident investigation of Tyre’s death last March.
It would prevent Florida’s smaller attractions operators from making unauthorized adjustments to a ride’s restraint systems, as the state determined happened in the accident, and require operators to submit more detailed safety and operational documentation to the state. It also would broaden the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s oversight of the industry by allowing it to establish minimum training standards for employees and conduct regular, unannounced ride inspections.
An amendment to the bill filed Monday would require rides to have secondary safety restraints like seat belts for attractions that raise riders more than 100 feet. Tyre’s family and a safety expert have said they believe a seat belt could have saved his life.
A companion bill would exempt all records in an active ride investigation from public view, keeping them confidential until an investigation ends. The bill says the early release of such records could jeopardize an investigation and prevent the state from “effectively and efficiently” conducting an investigation.
Critics, including Tyre’s mother, praised the safety bill but voiced concerns over the records legislation. The release of public records in the case gave Tyre’s family some answers in his death nearly seven months before the investigation ended, her lawyer told the Orlando Sentinel in a previous interview.
Both bills were approved by the Senate agriculture committee Monday.
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