Final Sheriff's Office report on death at Darien's 'Ride of Steel' contains new details
Submitted by Howard Owens on August 25, 2011 - 11:42am
Sgt. James Hackemer, who died July 8 after being ejected from the Ride of Steel at Darien Lake Theme Park, boarded the roller coaster wearing a Brown Fox racing hat.
As the ride crested a hill on the east side of the ride, Hackemer's hat flew off his head. Witnesses described Hackemer reaching for the hat just before he was ejected from the ride.
Witness statements were obtain by The Batavian along with a complete Sheriff's Office report on the death of Hackemer through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.
They provide a few new details of the events surrounding Hackemer's death, including information that seems to contradict the official findings by the Department of Labor (DOL) that ride operators failed to comprehend ride rules and instructions.
Though there is still no explanation for why operators allowed Hackemer to board the Ride of Steel at about 4:30 p.m. that day.
The DOL report released Aug. 16 states:
After exhaustive review of all the documentation and interviews, it appears that the ride operator and ride attendent training materials met the requirements of the manufacturer; However, issues concerning the employees' comprehension of the training material and their ability to retain the associated requirements of their positions, specifically in reference to rider restrictions, became apparent.
Sheriff's Office investigators obtained written statements from all five Darien Lake employees associated with the ride at the time of the accident. The statements, written in each employee's own hand, demonstrate no inability to comprehend English.
Four of the employees are from Western New York and while a fifth is a Jamaican student in the United States on a student work visa, his statement doesn't demonstrate any inability to communicate in English.
Each employee was also required by Darien Lake management -- sometimes more than once in 2011 -- to sign statements indicating they had completed and comprehended required training.
According to a report prepared by lead investigator Sgt. Steve Mullen, the DOL's safety and health inspector -- Brian C. Kock, assigned to the industry inspection bureau -- informed him that all of the employees had taken and passed written exams on ride safety.
The training checklists shows the employees were trained in, among other things, height-checking procedures, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) loading and boarding procedures and standard operating procedure.
The training manual, as well as rules posted at the entrance and exit to the Ride of Steel, state explicitly that a person must have two legs to board the coaster.
The coaster has no shoulder harness, only a T-bar lap restraint and seat belts.
The DOL report said the restraints are designed to hold a patron in the ride not only at the lap, but also at the shin.
Hackemer, an Iraq War veteran, lost both of his legs, including one leg up to his hip, to a roadside bomb.
On July 8, Hackemer, along with his sisters, a nephew and his 4-year-old and 3-year-old children, checked into rooms at the Darien Lake Hotel two hours before Hackemer and nephew went to the theme park.
Upon entering the park, employees directed Hackemer to the guest information booth for ride safety instructions. Hackemer was offered a brochure on safety procedures at each ride, but claimed to already have a copy and refused it. He was then given instructions on how to board rides at the park.
Hackemer, wearing white shorts and a neon green T-shirt, and his 19-year-old nephew who was visiting from Maryland then proceeded directly to the Ride of Steel.
Three of the ride attendants write in their statements that they saw Hackemer board the ride -- being lifted into his seat by his nephew -- and noticed that he was missing both legs.
The statements give no indication that any of the operators thought any further about his handicap, discussed with him his ability to ride the roller coaster, sought out a supervisor's advice or otherwise took any steps to question whether Hackemer should be allowed on the ride or detain him in anyway.
The statements also indicate that the attendants knew nothing about Hackemer's situation, that he was a disabled Iraq War vet, at the time. He is described merely as a handicapped man seen getting on the ride.
Two attendants checked safety restraints for each of the riders in the cars. A third attendent checked an operation board that would display a red light if any of the T-bars were not locked in place. With all lights green, the two operators at two different control panels gave the all-clear signs and pressed their respective buttons to start the ride.
When the ride returned, passengers were screaming that a rider had fallen from one of the cars. All three operators on the boarding platform immediately noticed that Hackemer's seat was empty but that the restraints were still in place.
Witnesses on the ride all described seeing Hackemer's hat fly off his head and him reaching for it before seeing his body fly from his seat.
Hackemer's nephew described the ride coming to the crest of the hill and that he, the nephew, felt his own body lift out of the seat and then he saw his uncle fly from the car.
Evidence gathered at the scene indicate that Hackemer hit the front of the car and that Hackemer died instantly of blunt force trauma to his head.
An emergency medical response from the Darien Lake Fire Department and Mercy Flight was cancelled before law enforcement arrived on scene.
The veteran's dog tags were found on the ground near his body.
When the car pulled into the Ride of Steel boarding platform, one of the attendants said Hackemer's nephew was sitting in the front of the car not moving or saying anything.
Mullen did not request a written statement from the nephew because of his emotional and physical state. The nephew's statements contained in the report are from a verbal interview with him while he was at the theme park's medical station.
The ride attendants were an 18-year-old from Silver Lake, a 21-year-old from Lockport and a 23-year-old from Hamburg.
The Jamaican exchange student, a 21-year-old living in Batavia for the summer, was posted at the ride entrance and was in charge of ensuring riders were at least 54-inches tall. The Jamaican also saw Hackemer board the ride and noticed Hackemer was missing both legs.
Since Hackemer came in through the exit, which is point of entry for disabled patrons, there was apparently nobody in place to check his height. Hackemer was 47-inches tall on his left side and 39-inches tall on his right side.
The last employee to give a statement was a 24-year-old supervisor from Spencerport who arrived at the Ride of Steel just as Hackemer's car was arriving at the boarding platform. She did not witness Hackemer boarding the ride.
The Batavian is not releasing the names of the operators because there are no criminal charges anticipated.
The Ride of Steel was closed for the season last week after an unrelated mechanical failure earlier this month.