Orlando Free Fall to be torn down after Tyre Sampson’s death

The Orlando Free Fall, a drop tower from which 14-year-old tourist Tyre Sampson fell to his death in March, will be taken down, the attraction’s operators said Thursday.

But exactly when that will happen isn’t clear.

The decision is a relief for Tyre’s parents, Yarnell Sampson and Nekia Dodd, who have repeatedly called for the ride to be dismantled. Sampson has said he wants a permanent memorial to his son at the site after a temporary memorial was removed this summer.

“[Sampson] has been advocating for this since the day Tyre fell to his death,” Sampson’s lawyers Ben Crump and Bob Hilliard wrote Tuesday, wrote in a statement that called the announcement “long overdue.”

“The Orlando Free Fall ride never should have been permitted to operate under those faulty conditions,” it continued. “Theme parks, their parent companies, and regulatory agencies must do better to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to any other family.”

Dodd told reporters in April she wanted officials to “get rid” of the Orlando Free Fall, calling it “too big of a risk.”

“[Knowing] it will never operate again is a little bit comforting for her amid her grief,” her attorney Michael Haggard said Thursday in an interview.

Billed as the world’s tallest free-standing drop tower at 430 feet, the ride opened at ICON Park in December and had been in use for just less than three months when the St. Louis teenager slipped out from his restraint and fell as the attraction slowed to its end.

Ride operator Orlando Slingshot shut down the Free Fall and its other ride at the ICON Park, the Orlando SlingShot, after the accident. ICON Park, an International Drive entertainment complex, requested in March that the rides be closed indefinitely pending a safety investigation.

Tyre’s death sparked an immediate public outcry to take down the ride permanently and for ride safety authorities to scrutinize current safety laws. The teen’s family sued the Orlando Slingshot, ICON Park and the attraction’s manufacturers and installers in April. That suit is ongoing.

Slingshot CEO Ritchie Armstrong said the company decided to tear down the ride after hearing those calls.

“We are devastated by Tyre’s death. We have listened to the wishes of Tyre’s family and the community, and have made the decision to take down the FreeFall,” Armstrong said in a statement. “In addition, Orlando Slingshot will honor Tyre and his legacy in the classroom and on the football field by creating a scholarship in his name.”

The company did not provide a timeline for the ride’s demise Thursday, saying it was pending approval from all the parties involved and state regulatory agencies. Details about the scholarship weren’t yet available.

Shelby Scarpa, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Orlando Slingshot can’t alter or take down the ride until the agency finishes its investigation, but the company has been in touch with the agency about its decision.

The agency has not released a timeline for the probe, calling it a complex case.

In April, the state agency released an engineering report that found the safety sensors on two of the Free Fall’s seats had been modified to open between three and four inches wider than on other seats. The agency’s investigation to determine who made the adjustments and when is still ongoing.

The adjustments apparently allowed Tyre, a football player who stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 383 pounds, to slip out of the harness, the report said. Tyre weighed nearly 100 pounds over the weight limit determined by the ride’s manufacturer, reports confirmed.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried previously said she was waiting on the full investigation to be completed before taking part in determining the ride’s future.

A statement from ICON Park said the company supported the decision.

“Tyre’s death is a tragedy that we will never forget,” the unsigned statement read. “As the landlord, ICON Park welcomes and appreciates Orlando Slingshot’s decision to take down the ride.”

Along with closing the ride, reforming ride safety laws has been one of Tyre’s family’s top demands since the accident, Haggard said.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, has been a vocal advocate for the Sampson family and improving Florida’s ride safety laws.

Through a spokesperson, she said the Orlando Slingshot’s decision “shows consideration for the pain still suffered by the Sampson family and members of the community.”

“The continued presence or operation of the Free Fall Ride would be a constant reminder of the disregard for the health, safety and well-being of Tyre Sampson and others who patronize our amusement parks.” she said.

Thompson, who in August was elected to the state Senate, has pledged to file a bill in Tyre Sampson’s name for the next legislative session in the spring. Early ideas for it include more frequent inspections for Florida’s smaller attractions, stricter training standards for ride operators and mandated safety signs outside rides.

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