Orlando FreeFall death: Ride safety experts say teen's harness was not properly secured

Editor’s note: Since this story was published, questions have been raised about the true identity of "Shay Johnson," who claimed to be Tyre Sampson’s cousin and was collecting signatures for a petition. Sampson’s family has told officials that they do not know Johnson and that she is not a member of the family. Johnson spoke to several media outlets, including FOX 35, and attended events and memories in honor of Sampson, claiming to be his cousin. No charges have been filed, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

Forensic inspectors from Explico Engineering out of Michigan spent hours Tuesday afternoon taking a close look at the Orlando FreeFall ride at ICON Park, at times using a laser scanner.

An attorney for the amusement ride tells FOX 35 News they have hired the firm as state inspectors to conduct their own investigation into why 14-year-old Tyre Sampson fell to his death while on the ride late Thursday night. 

Documents submitted to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services division by The Slingshot Group, the owners of Orlando FreeFall -- part of the regulatory process for amusement rides – provide a picture into how the ride works and the processes followed.  Those documents are also sparking lots of questions.  

"If he was over the weight limit, why did you all allow him to get on this ride?  You all told him he couldn’t go on the slingshot. You told him he couldn’t the swing. Yet, you allowed him to get on this one. Why?" asked Shay Johnson, Sampson's cousin.

RELATED: Orlando FreeFall death: Video shows Tyre Sampson in seat moments before falling

The operations and maintenance manual from FunTimes Thrill Rides, the designer and manufacturer of the ride, spells out everything from how to conduct safety checks on the ride every day to how to use it properly.

According to that manual, the maximum weight limit for riders is 287 pounds.

Sampson’s father, Yarnell, tells FOX 35 News that the teen weighed 340 pounds, which would be 53 pounds over the weight limit. 

"I would rather for you all to hurt his little feelings and tell him not to get on. And his life would still be here," Johnson said.

Johnson spoke as friends and loved ones of Sampson organized two different walks along International Drive on Tuesday, demanding that the Orlando FreeFall ride at ICON Park be shut down.

Video taken the evening of the deadly fall shows a side profile view of Sampson in his seat on the Orlando FreeFall ride moments before it started.  He is kicking his legs as he waits to be lifted more than 400 feet into the air and dropped. The only thing keeping him in the seat is his harness.

According to the state’s accident report, "Freefall was coming to down the tower. When the magnets engaged, the patron came out of the seat. Harness was still in a down and locked position when the ride stopped." 

FOX 35 News asked two ride safety experts to take a look at its position. 

"I see a patron in an amusement ride and that over the shoulder restraint system is not properly affixed," said ride safety consultant Ken Martin. 

Another expert said Sampson’s harness may have been locked, but it was not pulled down far enough, leaving a gap. You can see the difference in how his fit compared to other riders. 

RELATED: Who could be liable for Tyre Sampson's death? Local attorney weighs in

"It should have been a closed circuit – where it came all the way down over the shoulders containing the person and/or resting in their lap," explained ride safety expert Brian Avery, who also lectures at the University of Florida.      

Even before knowing Sampson’s weight, Avery said it was clear he was too big for the ride, based on videos and pictures he has been shown from the tragic night.

"You can see that there was a gap with respect to the position of the harness in regard to the rider, on this particular fateful day," Avery said. 

Martin added that, when the ride came down and stopped abruptly, "that created enough g-force to throw him out."   

Avery also said there is a possibility that the teen did not know he was too big for the ride.  He said he has discovered a loophole in Florida code when it comes to signage warning of weight restrictions.  

"That loophole basically says if the manufacturer doesn't require to have signage postings and or identify specific requirements to post, you don't have to have that signage," Avery said.  

The owners of the Orlando FreeFall erected a privacy fence Tuesday morning and reporters are not allowed on property, so FOX 35 News was not able to see if the maximum weight is posted for riders to see. 

Video released to FOX 35 News shows the moments before the ride’s last climb up the tower, it's drop and Sampson’s horrific fall, and the aftermath with frantic workers talking amongst themselves.  


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"You guys checked him? The light was on. You sure you checked him?" a worker could be heard asking other attendants.

The manual explains the green lights those ride operators were referring to indicate the restraints, or passenger harnesses, were closed.  

"Just because it was down on the lock position doesn't mean it was safe to ride," Avery said. "It doesn't mean that it was securing the rider, according to what should have been required, with respect to the actual harness meeting the actual seat pan, if you will, in some capacity in between the rider’s crotch to ensure that there was a proper fit."

"You shouldn’t be able to press that button and make the ride go if any of the devices were not properly secure," Martin said. 

But Martin added that if the harness was in a lock position, it may give a false reading. 

Avery said checking for proper fit is the responsibility of the ride operators.  According to documents filed with the state, the ride operator in charge the night Sampson died had gone through training last month on February 22. The paperwork signed by the ride owner or manager specifies that she received operations training in seven categories including safety and emergency procedures.  

"My concern is that, yes, training was conducted but was it adequate? How long was the training? There's no markers, if you will, with respect to the timeframes, in which someone is trained on these devices," Avery added. 

According to the manufacturer’s manual, two of the seats riders sit in are checked each day.  There are 30 seats on the ride, so each seat is inspected every 13 days. The device used to test the seats is the same device the seat inspector was using to test seats Monday after the accident.  Avery said the seats are only safe if the ride operators follow all the safety rules.  

RELATED: Fence put up around Orlando drop tower ride where teen fell to his death

"A series of failures had to occur to even get to this point in this case," Avery said.

Right now, the owners of the Orlando FreeFall are not speaking to the media. However, they have expressed their condolences to Sampson’s family and said they are fully cooperating with the state’s investigation. 

Tuesday, State Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, sent a letter to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services asking that FreeFall be permanently shut down. Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she is waiting on the investigation findings to determine if any additional safety measures need to be proposed. 

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