ORLANDO, Fla. — The parents of a 14-year-old St. Louis boy who was killed while riding a thrill ride at a Florida amusement park are fighting to get justice for their son.
Nekia Dodd and Yarnell Sampson, along with their lawyers and other representatives, addressed reporters in two separate news conferences Tuesday. The media updates came a day after they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against several companies following the death of their son, Tyre Sampson.
Dodd joined her attorney, Michael Haggard, saying they wanted to get answers and make sure this never happens to another child or family again.
Haggard opened the press conference by holding up a $22 seat belt.
"If it would have been employed as a secondary restraint, Tyre Sampson would not have fallen to his death," he said.
While most free-fall rides have a shoulder harness and a seat belt, the Orlando Free Fall ride had only an over-the-shoulder harness. Adding seat belts to the ride’s 30 seats would have cost $660, the lawsuit said.
"They would have paid for that in two cycles of the ride. Simple as that," Haggard said.
“You didn’t want to miss a dollar. But you stripped me of my son. So yeah, it’s disgusting," Dodd said.
You can watch the full press conference here:
5 On Your Side earlier spoke with Haggard, who said all of the businesses named in the suit either owned, operated, manufactured, managed or inspected the ride.
Haggard said the lawsuit is really against three primary entities.
Fun Time, which manufactured this ride, ICON Park, which ran the amusement park and Slingshot, which operated the ride.
The lawsuit accuses those businesses of failing to safely operate the ride, failing to warn Sampson of the proper height and weight safety restrictions, and failing to properly train employees.
Haggard described the lawsuit in two parts. He told our team that this is a jury case and that it is a product liability lawsuit about the design of the ride. He added this also is a negligence lawsuit about how the ride was operated in Orlando - both by the park and the operator.
"They had one harness and they intentionally manipulated it to the point where when Tyree Sampson was on the ride, it opened approximately to 10 to 11 inches, and that is why he fell out," Haggard said during the press conference.
Haggard said that, on average, it should range from 3-4 inches to 6-7 inches.
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.
Haggard said Tyre tried to ride another ride that day, but they didn't let him because of his weight.
"You don’t worry about offending someone, you save their life," he said.
Beyond that, he talks about the strength of Nekia Dodd.
“I am so proud of this mother, because her thoughts are not about her. They were about other mothers, and other families, and the public," Haggard said. "And it was her decision to file this lawsuit now. To get sworn testimony under oath of those that are at fault. To get the documents that show the truth – who made this mistake? We still don’t know who actually manipulated the seats, when they manipulated the seats, and who knew about it and who directed it. And Nekia Dodd wants the public to know. She wants every mother out there, every family member to know, so that we can do one important thing. And that is to make sure this never happens to another child or family.”
Dodd said her son's death was preventable.
“This could’ve been prevented ... it should’ve been prevented,” Dodd told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in an interview aired Tuesday morning. “So as an operator, you have a job to check those rides, you know. The video I saw, that was not done. And if it was done, it should’ve been done more than once, you know.”
The family's other attorneys, civil rights lawyers Ben Crump and Bob Hilliard, held their own press conference Tuesday afternoon, in front of where Tyre Sampson died. Tyre's father was also in attendance. It was the first time he had come to where his son died.
Before the group approached the podium, they stopped at Tyre's memorial. For long moments, an emotional Yarnell Sampson looked on at signs, balloons and flowers laid out in his son's memory, stepping forward to straighten some of the items. Tyre was his only child.
"It's senseless that a child has to lose their life trying to have fun. Plain and simple," he told reporters.
Watch the full news conference in the video below:
“We filed that lawsuit because we wanted it to be on the record that the reason Tyre Sampson, this 14-year-old child was killed, is because these corporations put profit over safety," Crump said.
Yarnell said he found out his son died on the internet. A video of Tyre's fatal fall circulated widely online the night it happened, before efforts to take it down.
He was shown the video as he was getting off work.
"I was kind of sick when I seen it, but I didn't even know it was my child. When I found out it was my child, it took the breath out of me. It took some life out of me as well," he said.
Florida State Representative Geraldine Thompson was also in attendance at the press conference. She said that once they get questions answered, the "Tyre Sampson Bill" will be written and introduced to Florida legislature.
The purpose of the bill is "to honor this young man, so that his life will have meaning going forward -- for the protection, for the wealth, for the health, for the safety of our young people," Thompson said.
Yarnell Sampson echoed her message, saying it's his duty now to speak up for the voiceless, to prevent something like this from happening again.
"This should be the last press conference talking about my son, unless you're trying to help make change," the grieving father said.
Dodd and the boy's father 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 tall and weighed 380 pounds, about the risks of someone of his size going on the ride. It also claims they did not provide an appropriate restraint system on the ride.
Yarnell Sampson said he and Dodd are working together as a family to fight for changes.
He told NBC’s “Today" show Tuesday the family is dealing with his son's death “day-by-day, second-by-second, minute-by-minute.” He said he hopes legal action can create change in the industry so no other parent suffers.
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Attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the teen's family, said the defendants in the case “showed negligence in a multitude of ways."
“From the ride and seat manufacturers and the installer to the owners and operators, the defendants had more than enough chances to enact safeguards, such as seatbelts, that could have prevented Tyre’s death,” Crump said.
He said he hopes the judge will allow a jury view of the ride to see high how it is.
An attorney for the ride’s owner, Orlando Slingshot, said the company was continuing to cooperate with state investigators into what happened. “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 immediately comment on the lawsuit.
At the time of the accident March 24, Sampson was on spring break, visiting from the St. Louis area.
During her press conference, Dodd recalled the last time she saw her son. He had left but came back to get his charger, and she joked that he came back to give her a goodbye hug.
“I actually said ‘my last hug,’” Dodd said, not knowing how true the words were.
He reacted like a typical teenage boy would to his mother’s mushiness, she said, telling her his ride was waiting and he had to go. She had to grab him from behind, but she got her hug.
He walked through the long hallway of the house, and as he was backing out the door, he told her he’d see her Saturday or Sunday. Then he was gone.
When her phone rang the night Tyre fell, she first thought maybe his phone had died and he was calling her on a different number. She was with her youngest daughter, and they were planning on maybe watching a movie or getting pizza to celebrate spring break. Instead, she got the news that her son wouldn't be coming home.
“I couldn’t do anything for my son but cry over the phone. I couldn’t touch him, I couldn’t hold him, I couldn’t hug him. I couldn’t do anything. I don’t wish that on any parent,” Dodd said.
“That Sunday I was waiting for my son to come home. Cause that’s what he told me,” she 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.
Dodd said that she wants the ride where her son died to be taken down. "Just get rid of it altogether," she said.
She said she feels like she's living in an "extended nightmare," but she has to be strong for her 9-year-old, who still texts her big brother to give him updates on her life. She wants to find answers so this never happens to another family.
"That's the saying, 'give people their roses while they're still here'. That is so true. Your kids especially. Let them know you love them, you're here for them," Dodd said.
Dodd shares that she hasn't gone to the site and doesn't plan to.
As far as efforts to keep Tyre's name alive, just last week, a scholarship fund was set up.
Frank Clark, who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, helped set up the Tyre Sampson Scholarship Fund.
The fund will help incoming college freshmen from the inner city.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.