Operator error is suspected as the primary cause in the death of a 14-year-old boy who slipped out of his seat on a drop-tower ride at a Florida amusement park and plunged to the pavement, officials said Monday.
Nicole “Nikki ‘Fried, the Florida commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, announced the findings of a forensic engineer’s field investigation report on the March 24 incident that killed Tire Sampson of St. Louis, Missouri, at Orlando’s ICON Park.
Fried said the report showed the park’s operator’s FreeFall ride, the world’s tallest free-standing drop tower at a height of 430 feet, “made manual adjustments to the ride resulting in it being unsafe.”
The report by Quest Engineering & Failure Analysis, Inc., said manual manipulations were made to the seat Sampson was sitting in to allow the harness restraint opening to be loosened, apparently to accommodate the more than 300-pound teenager. Fried said the harness restraint opening was “almost double that of a normal restraint opening range.”
Fried said the adjustment by the individual operator, who was not identified in the report, enabled the FreeFall’s sensor lights to illuminate, “improperly satisfying” the ride’s electronic safety mechanisms and enabling the ride to operate “even though Mr. Sampson was not properly secured in his seat. “
“This report answers the question of what mechanically took place as our investigation now enters into the next phase of how and why it occurred as we look toward potential penalties along with any changes of rules and regulations needed to help prevent future tragedies,” Fried said at a news conference.
The report showed the average restraint opening for other seats on the ride was 3.33 inches, which is considered “normal.” Sampson’s seat was adjusted before the ride started to an opening of 7.19 inches, the report found.
“During slowing of the ride, Tire Sampson slipped through the gap between the seat and harness” and fell to his death, according to the report.
The forensic engineer who wrote the report said his conclusions were partly based on an examination of the ride, video of the incident and a reenactment using two individuals, one 6-foot-3, the other 6-foot-5, and both weighing between 200 and 300 pounds.
“During our investigation, two individuals were positioned in a seat with an opening ranging from 6 to 10 inches. Both individuals were able to slip through the restraint opening without assistance,” according to the report.
The forensic engineer’s investigation concluded that the ride “did not experience a mechanical or electrical failure.”
The report also found there “are many other potential contributions to the cause of the accident,” but did not elaborate.
Fried did not take questions from reporters and said she is declining further comment until the investigation is completed.
She said the FreeFall ride will remain closed indefinitely.
Fried said she spoke to Sampson’s parents prior to the news conference to inform them of the forensic engineer’s report.
State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said at the news conference that the manufacturer’s guidelines for the FreeFall specifically say the maximum weight of the rider is 250 pounds.
“Tire Sampson weighed in excess of 300 pounds. So, yes this is outside of the manufacturer’s guidelines,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she was “very disturbed” by the report. She said she has been in contact with the Sampson family’s attorney, Ben Crump.
“As you might imagine, the family is in shock,” Thompson said. “You send your 14-year-old son away for spring break and he does not return alive. So, they’re in shock.”
ICON Park said in a statement to ABC News on Monday that it was “deeply troubled” by the report’s findings.
“We are deeply troubled that the preliminary findings of the State’s investigation indicate a sensor on the Orlando FreeFall attraction, which is owned and operated by the SlingShot Group, had been mis-adjusted after the sensor was originally secured in place,” the statement said . “ICON Park is committed to providing a safe, fun experience for families. We will continue to support the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services with their ongoing investigation.”
SlingShot Group, the ride’s operator, did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment on Monday.
The company said in a statement following Sampson’s death that it was “heartbroken” about the incident and was cooperating with authorities and ride officials in the investigation.
ABC News’ Victoria Arancio contributed to this report.