BUFFALO, N.Y. – Operator error was to blame for an amputee Iraq war veteran's deadly fall from a roller coaster and the amusement park was cited for having improperly trained workers, state officials said Friday.
Labor Department investigators found the Ride of Steel coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park & Resort was mechanically sound and safety devices were working properly when Army Sgt. James Hackemer, who had lost his legs to a roadside bomb, was lifted from his seat near the end of the ride and thrown to the ground July 8.
The 29-year-old father of two died of blunt force trauma.
State investigators said operators did not follow rules posted at the ride's entrance, which require that riders have both legs. A seatbelt and metal bar restrain riders by the legs, shins and lap.
Hackemer wasn't wearing his prosthetic legs when he shifted from his wheelchair into a front seat of the ride.
The Labor Department, which has regulatory authority over amusement park rides, said it issued two violations to Darien Lake: one for not properly training the ride's operators on the safety and operations restrictions and the second because operators were unfamiliar with the coaster's safety requirements. No fines or penalties accompanied the violations.
Christopher Thorpe, general manager of the amusement park between Buffalo and Rochester, refused to answer reporters' questions about whether the ride operators ignored the safety rules or were unaware of them when they let Hackemer board.
The ride, which had been closed since the accident, was re-opened Friday after operators received fresh training in safety procedures and clearer safety signs were posted at the recommendation of the Labor Department. Managers also must now review all safety restrictions on every ride prior to the start of each operator's shift, the department said.
The park also will increase the frequency of random, unannounced audits to make sure ride rules are being followed and it has hired a dedicated auditor, Thorpe said.
"We were all devastated by this tragedy, and are committed to doing everything we can to prevent something like this from ever reoccurring," he said.
Thrill ride enthusiasts said they'd heard about the accident but weren't afraid to ride the roller coaster.
"Stuff happens," said 30-year-old Shawn Lingg of Rochester, who rode the coaster a few minutes after it reopened Friday afternoon. "People get in car accidents all the time. They don't stop driving cars."
Bill Pufky of Cicero, who was in the first car along with his 11-year-old daughter Rachel, said "Dad tightened everything a little tighter." He called the death "a tragic and unfortunate accident."
Last week, the Genesee County Sheriff's Office concluded that operators violated park policy by allowing Hackemer on the ride but it decided not to file criminal charges.
Hackemer came out of his seat and its restraints on the last and second-highest of three hills on the coaster, which reaches speeds in excess of 70 mph and whose highest peak is 208 feet. The veteran struck the front of the eight-car train and fell about 150 feet, landing on a grassy area.
The park has not released the employment status of the ride's operators or answered questions about their work history.
When Hackemer got to the park with about a dozen family members, including his 3- and 4-year-old daughters, he stopped at guest services to ask about procedures for disabled visitors, sheriff's investigators said. He was told to enter rides through the exit but he declined a pamphlet detailing the physical requirements for specific rides, telling staff he already had one.
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