Orlando lawmaker wants to make amusement rides safer, add public record exemption after teen’s death

Sen. Geraldine Thompson's bill comes in the wake of a teenager’s falling death from an Orlando attraction last year. 

A Central Florida lawmaker’s bill adding more safety rules on amusement rides passed through the Senate Agriculture Committee Monday in the wake of a teenager’s falling death from an Orlando attraction last year. 

Sen. Geraldine Thompson’s proposed new Legislation could also delay the public finding out what happened when someone is hurt on a ride.

Fourteen-year-old Tyre Sampson fell more than 400 feet after he slipped out of his seat on the Orlando Free Fall drop tower while on a spring break trip last year.

Thompson sponsored SB 902 — called the Tyre Sampson Act — that adds sweeping changes to rules governing smaller amusement park attractions. The beefed-up safety measures include allowing inspectors to show up unannounced to make sure employees are properly trained and rides are operating safely. The committee also supported Thompson’s amendment to require two forms of restraints.

“In this instance, a seatbelt in addition to the harness might have saved this young man’s life,” the Orlando Democrat said Monday. “So this amendment requires that any ride that rises more than 100 feet in the air must have seatbelts in addition to any other kinds of restraints.”

Her bill also “focuses on signage, so that potential riders of any amusement park ride would know the height requirement as well as the weight requirement. That was one of the issues with regard to Tyre Sampson,” Thompson told reporters Monday before the vote.

Tyre, a star football player who weighed 383 pounds, exceeded the weight requirements for Free Fall.

Thompson’s bill only applies to smaller amusement rides and would not affect the larger theme parks at Disney World, Universal Orlando, Legoland, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Thompson also sponsored a second bill, SB 904, that would let the Florida Department of Agriculture delay the release of investigation records for ride accidents until after the investigation is finished, a process that might take weeks or months. The committee unanimously supported the bill.

But Michael Haggard, a lawyer representing Tyre’s mother, told Florida Politics he is working with Thompson to try and remove that public records exemption.

Tyre’s death had regularly been in the news as the media reported updates, like a report that blamed operator error for Tyre’s death because manual adjustments had been made to the ride.

“The media did an excellent job reporting on this case because they had access to that,” Haggard said of the documents and information the state released while the investigation was ongoing. “The public needs to know. The family needs to know. We’re a tourism state. You can’t hide.”

A journalist asked Thompson for her reasoning behind the public exemption component of her proposed legislation during a media availability Monday before the vote.

“The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services received multiple requests for the results of the investigation, and the investigation had not concluded,” was how Thompson answered the question.

So if the bill had applied to Tyre’s case, “the fines and the findings with regard to negligence and some of the violations related to the Free Fall ride could only be made available at the conclusion of the investigation,” Thompson said.

Otherwise, Haggard praised Thompson’s efforts for SB 902, especially her amendment to require both a seatbelt and a harness.

“When you look at these types of free-fall rides across the country, probably 75% have both,” Haggard said about seatbelts and harnesses during Monday’s hearing. “We really think it should be 100%, certainly in our state, to make sure that this never happens again. Thank you so much for your hard work on this important bill.”

On Sunday evening, the area by the Free Fall ride was still blocked off as the ride is in the process of being dismantled at ICON Park. Tourists walked past the site of the tragedy along the bustling International Drive.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .


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