State regulators are expected to meet with investigators from the Sheriff's Office tomorrow and present their findings from their investigation into the death Friday of Iraq war hero James Hackemer, who was ejected from the Ride of Steel at Darien Lake Theme Park.
Until then, it's hard to say, according to Deputy Chief Jerome Brewster, if there will be any evidence to take to the District Attorney's Office for possible prosecution of any staff members at the theme park.
"At this point, we don't see any evidence of criminality," Brewster said. "But we'll have to see what the Department of Labor comes up with in their half of the investigation. If in their half, they find training records that show a supervisor or employees were trained not to let an amputee on the ride (for example), then maybe there is something to take to the District Attorney to review."
Brewster said, rather than a criminal complaint the findings might support a possible civil action by Hackemer's family, noting, however, that in any case where there is an injury or death on an amusement park ride, some sort of civil action is likely.
"Just off the top of my head I would think there’s some potential for civil liability, but criminal liability remains to be seen," Brewster said.
The Sheriff's Office has completed its investigation, Brewster said. The DOL investigators were at the scene of the accident today and are expected to return to Darien Lake in the morning before meeting with the Sheriff's Office in the afternoon.
Darien Lake officials are being exceptionally tight lipped about the accident.
Cassandra Okon, spokeswoman for the theme park, today repeated what she's told every news outlet that's called her: Officials at the park have no idea how long the investigation will take and until then park officials have no comment on the accident.
Asked if there would be a press conference after the investigation is completed, Okon said that hasn't been decided.
She took The Batavian's e-mail address and said if there are any further statements from Darien Lake, the statements will be e-mailed to all of the media outlets on her list.
The story of Hackemer's death has been reported throughout the world.
He lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq and twice nearly died as a result of his wounds.
Hackemer's family told the Buffalo News that the 29-year-old father of two "died happy."
"I have no doubt in my mind that he died happy," his sister, Jody Hackemer, said Saturday as the family gathered at Hackemer's parents' farmhouse in Gowanda. "I know that's hard to comprehend. But really, he was doing what he wanted to do. And that's the important thing."
While there have been rumors since the accident that Hackemer insisted on getting on the ride over the objections of Darien Lake staff, the family contradicts those account in the Buffalo News article.
"We in no shape or form hold Darien Lake accountable," the sister said. "They weren't negligent. It's nobody's fault. It was an accident. James thought it wasn't an issue."
Brewster said that what he's seen from the investigation reports so far indicate that Hackemer wanted to get on the ride and family and staff assisted him. There was no attempt that Brewster is aware of to stop Hackemer from taking a seat on the Ride of Steel.
"Nobody has indicated that at this point," Brewster said.
Brewster confirmed accounts that Hackemer was ejected from the ride at the crest of a hill on the ride the runs parallel Route 77 where other rides have said the gravitational shift causes riders to lift out of their seats.
Hackemer had already been though bigger hills in the ride, so it's still not clear why he was ejected at this point in the ride.
The accident has revived an attempt by a Massachusetts congressman to take theme park regulation out of the hands of state officials and put regulation and investigation into federal officials' hands.
The local and state regulators who currently oversee amusement parks may lack the budget resources and technical experience to carry out effective safety checks and investigate accidents, Markey said.
"While the cause of the accident that claimed the life of Sgt. Hackemer is still unknown, one thing is crystal clear: Hypercoasters that hurtle riders at speeds exceeding 70 miles per hour along 200-foot drops should not be exempt from federal safety oversight," Markey said.
He plans to introduce legislation, which he has proposed multiple times before, to make fixed-site amusement parks subject to the regulatory authority of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal consumer protection body. The move could prevent future injuries, he said.