ORLANDO, Fla. — Records obtained by 5 On Your Side reveal new details in the death of St. Louis County middle schooler Tyre Sampson, who fell from a thrill ride in Orlando, Florida, last week.
According to an operating manual for the FreeFall drop tower ride, the weight limit for the ride was 130 kg, or about 287 pounds. Sampson's father, Yarnell Sampson, said the 14-year-old weighed about 325 pounds.
The operation manual's rider walkthrough guide included the following instructions for larger guests:
"Limitation: Large people: Be careful when seeing if large guests fit into the seats. Check that they fit within the contours of the seat and the bracket fits properly. If this is not so - Do not let this person ride."
Lawyers for his family want to know if negligence about his size, or other factors, played a role.
“This young man, he was athletic and he was big. He had no way of knowing,” said Bob Hilliard, a Texas attorney who represents Tyre's mother, Nekia Dodd, in an interview Saturday. “This is going to be an issue of a lack of supervision and lack of training. A straight-up negligence case."
Investigators on Saturday continued to examine what happened last Thursday night when Tyre dropped out of his seat from a 430-foot, free-fall amusement park ride that is taller than the Statue of Liberty along a busy street in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district not far from Disney World.
The ride takes patrons up to that height, tilts so they face the ground for a moment or two, and then plummets toward the ground at speeds of 75 mph or more.
According to an initial accident report obtained by 5 On Your Side, Tyre came out of the seat when the ride's magnets engaged. The ride's harness was "still in a down and locked position when the ride stopped," the report said.
Records showed the ride had passed a safety inspection in December. The operator listed in the accident report had also gone through operation training for the ride in February, an employee training record showed.
The well-known civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is working with Hilliard and represents Tyre's father, said the family is “shocked and heartbroken at the loss of their son.”
“This young man was the kind of son everyone hopes for — an honor roll student, an aspiring athlete, and a kind-hearted person who cared about others,” Crump said in a statement Saturday.
Members of Tyre's family and strangers have been protesting at the central Florida ride, calling for it to be shut down. His cousin, Shay Johnson, was there. She started a petition to make sure that this doesn't happen to anyone else and wonders why Tyre was permitted to ride.
"He really wanted to ride the swing, and they told him that he was too big," Johnson said. "Then he said he went to the slingshot and they told him he's too big for that, but y'all did not let him get on those two but y'all let him get on that one being overweight."
The Orange County Sheriff's Office and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), which regulates amusement rides in Florida at all but the major theme parks, declined comment Saturday other than to say the investigation is ongoing.
FDACS officials gave an update Friday, more than a week after the incident, to say they've hired a forensic engineer to help determine what went wrong.
"We are not taking this lightly," said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried. "We are going to do everything in our power, and including potentially increasing our power, to make sure something like this never happens again."
Florida House Representative Geraldine Thompson, whose district covers Orlando and all of its theme parks, said she is prepared to draft a Tyre Sampson Bill, if needed, with recommended changes and fixes once the investigation is complete. Rep. Thompson has been working with Tyre's family on what that bill could potentially address.
"They're not interested so much in fixing blame as in fixing the problem. And I'll be working with them to fix the problem," Rep. Thompson explained, "whether that is about training, whether it's about insurance."
Watch the full news conference from Florida officials and Rep. Thompson in the video below:
The Icon Park attraction said in a statement it is fully cooperating with investigators and that the Orlando FreeFall ride will be closed indefinitely. It opened late last year on International Drive, a major tourist mecca.
“We are heartbroken with the incident that took the life of one of our guests. We extend our condolences and deepest sympathy to his family and friends," said a statement from the SlingShot Group, which operates the ride.
Family said Sampson was a straight-A student who was looking forward to playing football for the East St. Louis Flyers this fall. He also played for Bad Boyz, a nationally ranked youth football program based in St. Louis.
He was a student at the City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis. The school sent a letter to parents last Friday saying counseling would be available for students this past Monday.
“Tyre has been a City Garden student for many years,” the school said in a statement from its principal and CEO. “We will miss him tremendously and our hearts go out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time.”
No criminal charges have been filed but a negligence or wrongful death lawsuit, or both, seem likely. Crump said the boy's parents “intend to get answers for Tyre's grieving family.”
“A fun theme park visit with his football team should not have ended in tragedy,” Crump said.