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Family of teen who died at Florida theme park says he was too heavy for ride

Tyre Sampson, a high school football player from St. Louis, had been turned away from two other rides, relatives said.

EDITOR'S NOTE (March 31, 2020, 6:30 p.m. ET): This article was based on an interview with a woman who told the NBC affiliate WESH-TV in Orlando that she was a cousin of Tyre Sampson. After the article was published, lawyers representing Sampson’s family told WESH that the woman was not a cousin of Sampson. An NBC News reporter spoke to another member of the family, who said that family members did not know who the woman was. As a result, NBC News is retracting this article.

Relatives of a teenager killed when he was thrown from a Florida amusement park ride last week said he had been turned away from two other attractions the same night because of his weight.

Tyre Sampson's family is asking why attendants at the FreeFall ride at ICON Park in Orlando allowed him to get on the ride when he was about 50 pounds heavier than its published weight limit.

"I would want for y’all to hurt his little feelings and tell him not to get on," a cousin told NBC affiliate WESH of Orlando. "And, see, his life would have been still here."

The FreeFall ride at the ICON Park entertainment complex in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday.
The FreeFall ride at the ICON Park entertainment complex in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

Relatives, including his father, Yarnell Sampson, and a cousin, Shay Johnson, have said Tyre Sampson was about 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 340 pounds.

Johnson told WESH that the teenager called her Thursday and told her “he really wanted to ride the swing,” a ride ICON calls StarFlyer, the cousin said.

But he was turned away because of his weight, she said.

“Then he said he went to the SlingShot,” Johnson said. “They told him he was too big for that. ... Y’all did not let him get on those two, but y’all let him get on that one, being overweight.”

ICON Park spokesman William Wellons said by email that the ride is owned and operated by SlingShot Group, which he said is responsible for hiring attendants or contractors.

"ICON Park is the landlord for the entertainment destination," Wellons said. "The SlingShot Group is responsible for the operations of the two thrill rides." 

The FreeFall and SlingShot attractions have been temporarily closed, the owner of the rides said.

“We are heartbroken by the loss of Tyre Sampson and absolutely devastated for his family and loved ones. We are fully cooperating with the authorities at the state and local levels who are investigating this tragic incident,” Ritchie Armstrong, the CEO of the Slingshot Group, said in a statement.

On Monday, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released documents related to its investigation, including the ride's operations manual, which says 286.6 pounds is the maximum weight for each rider. It states that attendants need to pay particular attention to large riders and turn them away if they don't fit.

A state accident report released Monday said that magnets work to stop the ride and that "when the magnets engaged, the patron came out of the seat,” the operator said, according to the report. “Harness was still in a down and locked position when the ride stopped.”

When construction started on the FreeFall in 2019, it was billed as the tallest drop tower ride in the world, with a planned height of more than 400 feet.

On Tuesday, family members and well-wishers gathered at the park to light candles and drop balloons to honor the teen, who the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said was in Florida for a football camp over spring break.

A former coach, Arnaud Jones, described him as a straight-A student who was never in trouble. "Yes sir, yes ma’am to everything," he told NBC affiliate KSDK of St. Louis.