Sheriff's Department to Update Darien Lake Investigation

9:39 PM, Jul 12, 2011   |    comments
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James Hackemer

BATAVIA, NY -The Genesee County Sheriff's Department has called a news conference for Wednesday morning to announce their findings in the case of an Iraqi war veteran who fell to his death from the "Ride of Steel" rollercoaster.

Army Sergeant James Hackemer, who lost both legs in Iraq in 2008, should have never been allowed to board the Darien Lake rollercoaster that caused his fatal accident.

That is according to Amusement Park Safety Expert Bill Avery, a managing partner of the Florida-based company Avery & Avery.

REPORTER: Generally, is it a good idea - is it safe - to let a double amputee onto a roller coaster?

AVERY: On the face of what you're asking, just based on what I know about rides in this industry, and that this was a lap restraint configuration, that would give me grave concern... If you seatbelt somebody at that particular part of their body - the apex - and nothing exists below it, you know, one fluid movement could make the restraint basically non-existent.

REPORTER: Given this man's disabilities, should he have ever been let on that ride?

AVERY: Should he have ever been let on that ride? My opinion, based on doing it without the prosthetic legs, no, I don't think so. I don't believe he should have.

Hackemer, 29, died last Friday after he fell off the "Ride of Steel" rollercoaster at Darien Lake Theme Park. The ride was once known as "Superman." Its operator allowed Hackemer to board even though he was not wearing his prosthetic legs, one of which included an artificial hip.

Hackemer, who is a father of two, was nearly killed from a roadside bomb, which caused his legs to be amputated. His long and heroic recovery was the subject of several news stories, making his death at the amusement park all the more ironic and cruel.

While addressing reporters during the weekend, Hackemer's sisters said their brother died doing what he loved, and that it was not their intention to sue Darien Lake.

"That was his intent was to get on that Superman," said his sister Jody. "Like I said, James is next to impossible to say no to."

But Avery said, given what he knows, the park should have said no.

"My rule of thumb, when I was in the business, 'when in doubt, out,'" Avery said. "You just can't take that kind of gamble when, if you don't know clearly, what it is you're dealing with."

A Darien Lake spokesperson said the park will not answer questions about the accident or its policies involving amputees on the "Ride of Steel" until it concludes its investigation. The spokesperson would not say when it would conclude.

Hackemer is the second man to be thrown from that same coaster since 1999. The other, Dwaileebe of Olean, survived. The park later added seatbelts to the ride.

"I was absolutely shocked," said Attorney Stephen Ciocca of Cellino & Barnes, who worked on Dwaileebe's case.

Ciocca said the park has a duty to train its ride operators to adequately screen passengers before allowing them to board the rollercoaster.

"People should not fall out of rides. It's as simple as that," Ciocca said. "When you get on a ride, you expect that you are going to get on the ride, you're going to have fun, and you're going to get off the ride and be able to continue on with your day."

Ciocca also said it is not uncommon for families to change their mind about future litigation.

"Ultimately, whether this family decides to pursue this matter or not, if nothing else comes of this, then what hopefully will come of this is that amusements parks will take this as another example of an avoidable tragedy, and that they will do everything they possibly can to ensure that riders of their rides are safe," he added.

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