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Parents of teen who fell off Florida ride hope wrongful death lawsuit sparks change

Tyre Sampson, 14, died March 24 after plunging from the Free Fall attraction at ICON Park in Orlando, Florida.

The parents of a Missouri teenager who died last month after he slid off an amusement park ride in Orlando, Florida, say the purpose of a wrongful death lawsuit filed Monday is to "make change."

Nekia Dodd, mother of 14-year-old Tyre Sampson, said Tuesday during a news conference in St. Louis, that she felt helpless learning about her boy's deadly plunge on March 24 from the Free Fall attraction at ICON Park.

"To get a call over the the phone and not to be there as a mother, to comfort, you know, tell him, 'It's going to be OK,' that is very disturbing. It's heart-wrenching. It's heart-wrenching. I couldn't do anything for my son," Dodd said. "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."

In a separate interview, Yarnell Sampson, Tyre's father, told NBC’s “TODAY” show in an exclusive interview that aired Tuesday: “My son was Tyre Sampson, just 14 years old. He’s been taken away from me too soon."

"When you kiss your child and tell them you love them, you know, the raw emotions of that. I don’t have that choice. Or the chance no more to say that."

Sampson and Dodd are named as plaintiffs in a 65-page lawsuit filed in Orange County’s 9th Judicial Circuit Court Monday.

Named as defendants were Orlando Eagle Drop Slingshot LLC, which owns the Free Fall, and ICON Park. ICON Park declined to comment on the suit.

Also named as a defendant is Funtime Handels GMBH and Gerstlauer Amusement Rides GMBH, an Austrian company that designed and manufactured the ride, NBC affiliate WESH of Orlando reported. No representative with the organization could be reached for comment.

Attorneys for the Slingshot group released a statement on Monday that did not directly address the lawsuit, but said the company is cooperating with state investigators.

“We reiterate that all protocols, procedures and safety measures provided by the manufacturer of the ride were followed,” the statement said. “We look forward to working with the Florida legislature to implement change in the industry and we are also supportive of ... the ‘Tyre Sampson Bill’ to prevent a tragic accident like this from ever happening again.”

The suit said the ride operator "negligently adjusted restraint systems on the Free Fall ride… failed to train their employees… and failed to provide a safe amusement park ride”

During the media briefing in St. Louis, Dodd's attorney, Michael Haggard, said a seat belt would have saved Tyre's life, who was only in eighth grade. Haggard said that unlike similar rides, Free Fall only had an over-the-shoulder harness to secure riders.

The approximate cost to add $22 seat belts to the ride’s 30 seats is $660, the suit said.

"Tyre Sampson would not have fallen to his death. Nekia would be working with her honor-roll student right now, finishing eighth grade. Picking out his outfit for eighth-grade prom. And getting ready to start football at St. Louis Power East Side High. That's where we would be if this simple $22 device had been employed."

Dodd wore a blue shirt with her son's photo on it, along with his nickname, "Big Tick." Dodd said it was given to him by his football teammates — short for "Big Ticket" — meaning he was on a trajectory towards stardom.

"He was on his way. He was going to be known, but not like this. He was going to be on the football scene, the NFL team. ... Not this type of way."

She described Tyre as humble, selfless, polite and loving.

Nikki Fried, commissioner of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, announced April 18 during a media briefing that operator “mis-adjustments” had contributed to Tyre’s death.

“Manual adjustments had been made to the sensor for the seat in question that allowed the harness-to-restraint opening to be almost double that of the normal restraint-opening range,” Fried said.

Tyre, who was 6-feet 2-inches tall and weighed about 380 pounds before his death, slipped through the gap between the harness and the seat, according to a state report. The boy weighed about 100 pounds above the weight limit for the ride.

People visit a makeshift memorial for Tyre Sampson outside the Orlando Free Fall ride at ICON Park on March 27, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. Sampson, a teenager visiting from Missouri on spring break, fell to his death while on the ride.
People visit a makeshift memorial for Tyre Sampson outside the Orlando Free Fall ride at ICON Park on March 27, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. Sampson, a teenager visiting from Missouri on spring break, fell to his death while on the ride.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

“It was a cascade of gross negligence by multiple parties," said Attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Tyre’s father in the suit. “Think about the millions of children that go to amusement parks every day in the world. Nobody would ever dream this happened to their child. And that’s what we want Tyre’s legacy to be that it will not happen again.”

Yarnell Sampson said his son had a limitless future ahead of him.

“He could have been a doctor, lawyer, astronaut, anything," he said. "We both dealing with this day-by-day, second-by-second, minute-by-minute to be honest with you. The best thing to do is to get the ball moving towards the right direction — we can make change together.”

Dodd said the last words her son said to her were, "I'll see you Saturday or Sunday." Her voice cracked as she remembered the moment.

"I was waiting for my son to come home," Dodd said. "I was expecting to see my son return to me the same way he walked out my door."