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Operator 'mis-adjustments' made Florida ride where teen fell to his death unsafe, officials say

Tyre Sampson, 14, plunged to his death from the Free Fall ride at Orlando's ICON Park on March 24.

Operator "mis-adjustments" on an Orlando, Florida, amusement park ride were a contributing factor when a teen slid out of his seat and fell to his death last month, officials said Monday.

Tyre Sampson, 14, of Missouri, died March 24 after plunging from the Free Fall attraction at ICON Park, officials said.

Nikki Fried, commissioner of the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Monday that a forensic engineering firm determined the ride's operator "made manual adjustments to the ride resulting in it being unsafe."

"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 at a news conference.

"These mis-adjustments allowed the safety lights to illuminate, improperly satisfying the ride's electronic safety mechanisms that allowed the ride to operate even though Mr. Sampson was not properly secured in the seat," she said.

Determining if operator error was a factor is only the initial stage of the investigation, Fried said, noting there are many other factors that may have potentially contributed. The investigation remains ongoing, she said.

A representative with Orlando Eagle Drop Slingshot LLC, which owns the Free Fall, was not immediately reached for comment.

ICON Park said in a statement Monday it is "deeply troubled" by the findings that the ride's sensor "had been mis-adjusted after the sensor was originally secured in place." 

"ICON Park is committed to providing a safe, fun experience for families," the statement said. "We will continue to support the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services with their ongoing investigation."

A field report from Quest Engineering and Failure Analysis Inc., based in Tallahassee, said Tyre slipped through a gap between the seat and an over-the-shoulder harness that lowers over riders' torsos.

The report said there were no mechanical failures; instead, evidence showed tightening of screws and then loosening and movement of sensors to a new location on his ride seat. The engineering firm also found that of the 30 seats on the ride, 27 showed an average restraint opening of 3.33 inches. However, two seats showed restraint openings of more than 6.5 inches, including the seat where Tyre sat, which was 7.19 inches.

"The effective restraint opening will expand by several inches when forced," the report said. "During our investigation, two individuals were positioned in a seat with an opening ranging from 6 to 10 inches. Both individuals were able to slip through the restraint opening without any assistance. The individuals were 6'3 to 6'5 tall and weighed between 200 and 300 pounds."

Officials called the Free Fall ride an “immediate serious danger to public health” in an order released to the public earlier this month.

The order formally closed the ride March 25, the day after the teen fell to his death from the drop tower-style ride in front of horrified onlookers.

When it opened, the Free Fall’s nearly 400-foot drop was billed as the highest in the world. The ride was inspected for the first time on Dec. 20. No deficiencies were found, and the ride passed its inspection, officials said.

Photos and video posted online apparently show that Tyre — who was over 6 ½ feet tall — was not fully buckled into the ride, with a safety harness sitting far above those of the other riders.

In video of the incident obtained by NBC News, a voice is heard asking: “Why doesn’t this have the little clicky click to it, like the seat belt?”

As the ride lifts off, a voice from the ground is heard shouting: “Hey, did you check your seat belt on the left side? Seat belt! Seat belt!”

People visit a makeshift memorial for Tyre Sampson outside the Free Fall ride at ICON Park on March 27 in Orlando, Fla.
People visit a makeshift memorial for Tyre Sampson outside the Free Fall ride at ICON Park on March 27 in Orlando, Fla.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

Tyre was visiting Florida for spring break with his football team. He was a straight-A student who “had a bright future ahead” and was never in trouble, his uncle Carl Sampson said.

Michael Haggard, one of Sampson’s family’s attorneys, told NBC affiliate WESH of Orlando that he is focused on the apparent absence of a legally required declaration of the ride’s maximum rider weight.

Tyre is reported to have weighed around 300 pounds. The ride’s maximum rider weight is around 285 pounds.

WESH reported that no maximum rider weight limit is displayed anywhere on Free Fall’s signs — only a maximum height.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, who spoke at Monday’s media briefing, said it’s critical to determine when the adjustments were made and who authorized them. She said officials need to consider safeguards, such as additional inspections if adjustments to rides are made after the initial inspection.

She also said it’s her understanding that two seats were adjusted to accommodate heavier riders.

“Which should not have happened, based on the manufacturer’s guidelines,” Thompson said.

“My understanding is that adjustments were made to seat one and seat two. Therefore, if you have a larger person, they were assigned to seat one and seat two,” she said.

Thompson added that it’s critical to wait and see what evidence is presented by the ride’s operators and its manufacturer.

There is no direct federal or state oversight of what thrill-ride manufacturers put in their manuals dictating safety measures, Florida officials have said.