Orlando Free Fall’s altered harnesses raise safety questions, expert says – Orlando Sentinel

Brian Avery, a theme park safety expert with 30 years of experience, has reviewed dozens of accidents and served as an expert witness in court cases nationwide.

The death of a 14-year-old boy on the Orlando Free Fall at the ICON Park entertainment complex is “uncharted territory,” he said, because ride operators are accused of tampering with the ride’s safety mechanisms.

A report released by the state Monday showed that safety sensors on two of the ride’s harnesses were modified so the harnesses opened almost double the range of those on other seats. Tyre Sampson sat in one of those seats late March 24, the report said, and the boy from St. Louis fell to his death when he slipped out through the gap formed between the harness and the seat.

Avery said this alteration was likely done to accommodate larger riders, but it is not within industry safety practices. Rides typically make room for larger guests by installing larger seats and harnesses, he said.

Tyre reportedly weighed at least 330 pounds and stood 6-foot-5.

“No one should just be going in and making modifications like this, in my opinion, to the systems to circumvent safety mechanisms that were put in place for a specific rider population,” Avery said. “I’m sick to my stomach with what I’ve reviewed.”

The report does not specifically accuse the ride’s operator, the SlingShot Group, of modifying the ride. But Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said Monday it confirmed her department’s findings that the “operator of the Orlando drop tower made manual adjustments to the ride, resulting in it being unsafe.”

Fried’s office commissioned the report by Quest Engineering & Failure Analysis as part of a larger, continuing investigation.

Quest’s preliminary report leaves several factors unknown, Avery said, including who ordered the modification, why the sensors were adjustable, how long the ride had been operating with the adjustment, why maintenance did not detect the modification, and if the adjustments were made after the ride passed state inspection in December.

Attorney Michael Haggard, who represents Tyre’s mother, Nekia Dodd, said the report shows just one aspect of the ride’s safety problems.

“We strongly believe that this was manufactured dangerously, and then the communication between the manufacturer, to ICON Park, to SlingShot, none of the safety measures were passed down — or were passed down correctly,” he said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

Trevor Arnold, the attorney representing the SlingShot Group, said in a statement Monday that the company followed all of the ride manufacturer’s guidelines and safety measures. But he welcomed a review of the Orlando Free Fall’s “design, safety, operation, restraint mechanisms and history,” as suggested by the report.

A spokeswoman for the SlingShot Group said Wednesday the company did not have additional comment. Austrian ride manufacturer Funtime Handels GmbH did not respond to messages.

ICON Park is the SlingShot Group’s landlord, but the SlingShot Group is responsible for the ride’s construction and adherence to manufacturer specifications as the Orlando Free Fall’s owner and operator, ICON Park attorney George Fernandez said in a statement.

“ICON Park is committed to providing a safe, fun experience for families and will continue to support the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services with its ongoing investigation,” he wrote.

Shortly after Tyre’s death, ICON Park demanded the SlingShot Group stop operating its rides at the complex for the investigation’s duration. The Orlando Free Fall remains closed indefinitely.

Representatives for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services declined to comment further on the report, citing the ongoing investigation.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s separate investigation remains active and there have been no recent updates in the case, spokeswoman Michelle Guido said.

The report showed the proximity sensor attached to the harness on Tyre’s seat had been manually modified to allow the restraint to open nearly 7 inches, but investigators found that gap could have grown to 10 inches as the ride slowed, allowing him to slip out.

During Quest’s investigation, two inspectors of comparable height to Tyre and weighing between 200 and 300 pounds found they could slip through the restraints’ openings on that seat, the report showed.

Avery is a member of several American Society for Testing and Materials committees, which set ride design, testing and inspection guidelines for the amusement industry.

Ride operators are supposed to discuss potential modifications with the manufacturer, Avery said. It is unclear if those discussions happened, but if they did, Funtime should have documented the changes with the state, he said.

“Then the state might request a re-inspection of the device to make sure it still meets the requirements of the manufacturer based on the new specifications,” Avery said.

Haggard, the attorney for Tyre’s mother, said Monday the results of the report were unsurprising to Tyre’s family and their attorneys. The legal team’s investigators also found that specific seats on the Orlando Free Fall had been adjusted, he said.

But beyond that, he said the ride was still “inherently dangerous” as manufactured, and because of its height, speed and tilt, it should have included a seat belt — something Avery previously stated might have saved Tyre’s life.

“This manufacturer should have made this ride with at least one secondary layer of protection besides a harness,” Haggard said.

In a Jan. 19 letter released by the state, Funtime said the Orlando Free Fall did not need seat belts because its restraint system had two independent locking devices and monitored shoulder restraints.

Tyre’s family expects to file a lawsuit within “the next couple weeks,” Haggard said.

“When you think about in America, a 14-year-old falling over 100 feet from an amusement park ride, it’s just insanity,” he said. “This can’t happen.”

Something most parties involved in the case seem to agree on is that stronger ride safety laws are needed to keep guests safe and prevent future tragedies.

Fried said her department would support strengthening ride safety legislation. State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, has said she will write the “Tyre Sampson Bill” to address any issues found during the investigation, which may include stricter rules regarding ride modifications, employee training and safety signage.

In statements following the tragedy on behalf of the SlingShot Group, Arnold said the company looks forward to working with lawmakers “to implement change in the industry.”

Avery suggested that the creation of federal ride safety regulations, supported by a database like that of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, could help align industry standards that vary by state.

“It doesn’t have to be complicated, but we do need to make sure there’s consistency,” he said.

Dodd’s “absolute goal” is to make sure others never experience the same loss, Haggard said.

A fundraiser started by Dodd in memory of Tyre, verified by her lawyer and a GoFundMe representative, has raised nearly $38,000 since it was started March 29.

“No Mother wants to get the call that I received that night and find out that my son died in such a horrific way,” Dodd wrote. “There is no money or compensation that will make up for my son’s death.”

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