ST. LOUIS, Mo. - The mother of Tyre Sampson said she wants the Orlando FreeFall drop tower ride at ICON Park to be taken down after her son fell to his death while on the ride in March, and also demanded that there be stricter laws for those types of rides.
Yarnell Sampson, Tyre's father, said he wants the ride manufactures to be held accountable for his son's death and to ensure more safety regulations are placed on amusement rides so no other family has to deal with the hurt that he and his family are currently going through.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: Orlando FreeFall Death Investigation
"They can take the ride down completely. Get rid of it altogether. It's too big of a risk," Nekia Dodd, Sampson's mother, told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday in St. Louis, Missouri, where Sampson lived. It was the first time she's spoken publicly since her son's death.
Watch the full press conference with Tyre Sampson's mom, Nekia Dodd, in the player above.
"The reason I'm here is to get some understanding and get a few answers – and to pay my respect for my son," said Yarnell Sampson at a press conference outside ICON Park. Both parents spoke at separate news conferences on Tuesday.
Dodd and Sampson filed a joint wrongful death civil lawsuit on Monday against the amusement park where the ride is located, the ride's manufacturer, its owners and operators, and the construction company that apparently built the ride. They have requested a jury trial.
"To get a call over the phone and to not be there, as a mother, to comfort, to tell him, 'it's going to be OK', it's very disturbing and heart-wrenching," Dodd said, recalling the phone call she received the night her son fell off the ride.
An undated photo of Tyre Sampson. Photo provided by family. (Family photo)
She remembered Tyre as a "gentle giant," who was humble, well-respected, and well-mannered. He was known as "Big Tick" – as in "Big Ticket out of St. Louis" by his football team, and had dreams of playing sports professionally.
"He was a go-getter. For him not to be here, it's devastating. He was on his way. He was going to be known, but not like this," she said.
Sampson was in Orlando with another family for Spring Break when he and his friends went to ICON Park, an amusement park with various attractions and rides. He was on Orlando FreeFall, a new drop tower ride that opened in December 2021 – it's billed as the world's tallest drop tower – and fell out of the ride's restraints as it was coming back down, according to the initial investigative report.
He died at the hospital, officials said. Video of the fall was widely shared on social media.
Yarnell Sampson told reporters that he learned of his son's death by watching the video as it was being rapidly shared on social media, though he did not know the first time he watched it that it was his son who fell.
"I was sick when I first seen it," he said.
"It makes me numb and helpless because I wasn't there to protect my son. But I'm here now to speak up for my son."
A state-ordered investigation by Quest Engineering, a forensics firm, concluded that the ride's operators manually altered two of the harness proximity sensors on two of the seats to accommodate larger guests.
"These misadjustments 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," said Nikki Fried, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, whose agency inspects rides at smaller amusement parks.
The report concluded that there were multiple other contributing factors that led to Sampson's death, but did not elaborate. It also concluded that the ride itself did not experience an electrical or mechanical failure.
Dodd said Sampson gave her a hug before he left for Orlando and said "I'll see you Saturday or Sunday." To then get a phone call days later that he would not be coming home was heartbreaking, she said.
Hours after the lawsuit was filed, the owners of The Slingshot Group released a statement through their attorney, Trevor B. Arnolda, of GrayRobinson.
"We reiterate that all protocols, procedures and safety measures provided by the manufacturer were followed…" part of the statement said, while also acknowledging the tragedy.
The manufacture's operations manual for Orlando FreeFall does not have a maximum height limit (it does have a minimum height recommendation), but did have a weight limit, which Sampson reportedly exceeded by at least 50 pounds, according to his family and lawyers.
The ride also used over-the-shoulder restraints that came over the chest, but did not have seatbelts, a shared concern of independent ride experts and Tyre's parents' lawyers. The manufacture of the ride said in a letter submitted to the state that an additional seatbelt would be redundant and not needed.
When asked to respond to Slingshot Group's most recent statement, attorney Bob Hilliard said: "We have evidence that that is false and we’re going to present it in court." Hilliard said that his team had spoken with two people who rode FreeFall prior to Sampson and were in the modified seats.
"You’re saying it could have been someone else?" asked FOX 35 reporter Holly Bristow.
"I’m saying the guy-it-almost-was will be a witness. And the bruises he had on his arm, trying to save his own life, he has a story to tell," Hilliard said.
Both attorneys said they requested a jury trial because they want the case to be on-the-record and have all the information available to the public. They do not want it to be a private case settled out of court, the attorneys said.
Hilliard told FOX 35 that he anticipates the trial would not begin for another 12-18 months, which, if true, would be summer or fall 2023.