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Sheriff: Vet shouldn't have been on roller coaster

A double-amputee Iraq war veteran who died when he was thrown from a 200-foot roller coaster in upstate New York should have never been allowed on the ride, authorities said Wednesday.
/ Source: news services

A double-amputee Iraq war veteran who died when he was thrown from a 200-foot roller coaster in upstate New York should have never been allowed on the ride, authorities said Wednesday.

The Genesee County Sheriff's Department released details of their investigation into the  accident that killed Army Sgt. James Hackemer, 29, who died Friday on the Ride of Steel roller coaster at the Darien Lake Theme Park Resort, located east of Buffalo.

Hackemer had lost both his legs in a roadside bomb explosion while deployed to Iraq in 2008 and had to be assisted onto the coaster.

Sheriff Gary Maha said Wednesday that Hackemer did not have the physical attributes necessary to be properly restrained on the ride, which at 208 feet, is one of the tallest rollercoasters east of the Mississippi River, and reaches speeds of 70 miles per hour, according to the park's website.

It's not clear why the park employees let Hackemer on the ride, but Maha said no criminal charges will be filed against the park operators in the accident.

"Darien Lake violated their own policies and procedures by letting him get on the ride," Maha told the Associated Press. A park spokeswoman wouldn't comment on the employment status of the workers or answer questions about their work history, the AP reported.

“We take our responsibility very seriously,” Darien Lake Theme Park Resort General Manager Christopher Thorpe said in a statement. “We are not going to rush this process. As soon as we have final information on any measures to be taken within the park, we will share those with the public.”

As the investigation at the theme park continues, the accident has reignited an effort to place fixed-site theme parks under federal regulatory oversight, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a democrat from Massachusetts, told Reuters.

The local and state regulators who currently oversee amusement parks may lack the budget resources and technical experience to carry out effective safety checks and investigate accidents, Markey said.

"While the cause of the accident that claimed the life of Sgt. Hackemer is still unknown, one thing is crystal clear: Hypercoasters that hurtle riders at speeds exceeding 70 miles per hour along 200-foot drops should not be exempt from federal safety oversight," Markey said.

He plans to introduce legislation, which he has proposed multiple times before, to make fixed-site amusement parks subject to the regulatory authority of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal consumer protection body. The move could prevent future injuries, he said.

Owners of the amusement parks as well as industry lobbyists oppose the legislation.

"Safety is the number one priority of the amusement park industry, but tragic events are extremely rare and would not be less frequent under federal oversight," Colleen Mangone, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said.

There is no evidence that federal oversight would improve the amusement park industry's excellent safety record, Mangone said, adding the likelihood of being seriously injured after a fixed-site ride in the U.S. was 1 in 9 million rides.

The approximately 400 fixed-site amusement parks in the United States are visited by 280 million guests annually, she said, adding that there were an average of three ride-related fatalities annually in the country.

In early June, an 11-year-old girl on a class trip to Morey's Mariner's Landing Pier in Wildwood, N.J., fell about 150 feet from near the top of a Ferris wheel and was killed.

A state report found the ride's restraints to be working properly, and investigators haven't been able to determine how the girl, who was riding alone, got out of the Giant Wheel gondola.

There were an estimated 685 serious injuries at fixed-site amusement parks requiring at least 24 hours of hospital treatment between 2003 and 2009, according to the National Safety Council, a research firm working on behalf of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Hackemer is survived by his parents and two children. His mother, Nancy, told local media after the accident that her son had been helped onto the ride by other people and was "doing what he wanted to do."

"It's going to help a little bit that he was happy," Hackemer's mother Nancy told local reporters after the accident. "We shouldn't have had him for these last three years and four months."

Reuters and NBC station WKBW of Buffalo contributed to this report.