Parents: Son’s death on Florida ride could’ve been prevented

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The parents of a 14-year-old Missouri boy who was killed while riding a 430-foot (131-meter) drop-tower ride at a Florida amusement park say their son’s death was preventable.

Nekia Dodd, the mother of Tyre Sampson, speaking Tuesday at a news conference in downtown St. Louis, said her son’s death has left her struggling with emotions ranging from frustration to grief to anger.

“Take the ride down completely,” Dodd said. “Get rid of it all together. Too much of a risk.”

Later in the day, outside the closed ride in Orlando’s tourist district, the teen’s father, Yarnell Sampson, said he wanted the people responsible to be held accountable. Before addressing reporters, he walked by a makeshift memorial of flowers and signs to honor his son and wiped away tears.

“When I found out it was my child, it took the breath out of me. It took some life out of me as well,” Sampson said.

The parents filed a lawsuit in state court in Orlando on Monday against the ride’s owner, manufacturer and landlord, claiming they were negligent and failed to provide a safe amusement ride.

The lawsuit claims the defendants failed to warn Sampson, who was 6-foot-2-inches (188 centimeters) tall and weighed 380 pounds (172-kilograms), about the risks of someone of his size going on the ride. It also claims they did not provide an appropriate restraint system.

Michael Haggard, one of Dodd’s attorneys, held up a seatbelt strap that he said costs $22. While most free-fall rides have a shoulder harness and a seatbelt, the Orlando Free Fall ride had only an over-the-shoulder harness. Adding seatbelts to the ride’s 30 seats would have cost $660, the lawsuit said.

“It’s disgusting,” Dodd said. “You wanted to save a dollar but you stripped me of my son.”

Attorney Benjamin Crump, who also is representing the teen’s family, said at the Orlando news conference that the teens’ parents were seeking millions of dollars. Another attorney, Bob Hilliard, said among the witnesses they want to testify is someone who was on the ride before Tyre Sampson, who “has a story to tell.” Hilliard didn’t elaborate further.

An attorney for the ride’s owner, Orlando Slingshot, said the company was cooperating with state investigators.

“We reiterate that all protocols, procedures and safety measures provided by the manufacturer of the ride were followed,” attorney Trevor Arnold said in an emailed statement.

A spokesperson for the landlord, ICON Park, did not comment on the lawsuit.

Last week, an initial report by outside engineers hired by the Florida Department of Agriculture said sensors on the ride had been adjusted manually to double the size of the opening for restraints on two seats, resulting in Sampson not being properly secured before he slipped out and fell to his death.

The Orlando Free Fall ride, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty, did not experience any electrical or mechanical failures, the report said.

The report said there were many other “potential contributions” to the accident and that a full review of the ride’s design and operations was needed.

Sampson, visiting Orlando for spring break from the St. Louis area, was killed March 24. Dodd said she was devastated when one of Tyre’s friends called to tell her what happened, knowing she couldn’t be there for her son.

She described her son as a humble, well-mannered boy who loved football, and she is convinced he would have played in the NFL.

“He was a go-getter,” Dodd said. “He was on his way. He was going to be known — but not like this.”

His father described Tyre as a “gentle giant,” who said “ma’am and sir” to adults.

“A child shouldn’t lose his life trying to have fun,” Yarnell Sampson said.

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Associated Press reporter Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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