Sheriff: Theme park policy ignored in vet's death on roller coaster

BATAVIA, NY Signs at the Ride of Steel roller coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park & Resort clearly state riders "must have two legs," said Genesee County Sheriff Gary Maha, whose office interviewed witnesses and park employees during an investigation that found no recklessness, intent or other criminal wrongdoing.

Sgt. James Hackemer, 29, who'd lost both his legs to a roadside bomb, died Friday when the force of the coaster lifted him out of his seat and its lap bar and seat belt restraints on the last and second-highest of three hills on the coaster. The veteran struck the front of the eight-car train and fell about 150 feet, landing on a grassy area at the park.

He died of blunt force trauma, an autopsy showed.

"He didn't have the physical attributes to hold him in," Maha said in announcing the results of the investigation.

The ride operators, who were not identified, "clearly knew" Hackemer did not have legs but offered no explanation for why they let him on the coaster that reaches speeds in excess of 70 mph and drops riders more than 200 feet on the first hill.

"Darien Lake violated their own policies and procedures by letting him get on the ride," Maha said.

A park spokeswoman wouldn't comment on the employment status of the workers or answer 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. 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, investigators said.

He then headed for the Ride of Steel, a childhood favorite. His college-age nephew, Ashton Luffred, lifted his uncle from his wheelchair and placed him in the front seat of the car before taking the seat next to him.

At the ride's entrance and exit, white wooden signs measuring about 3 by 4 feet list the restrictions and rules in red letters.

"For the restraint devices on this ride to fully and safely engage, guests must have two legs and be within a certain range of size and physical dimension," the signs read in part, according to the sheriff. "In addition, guests must have sufficient body strength and the complete use of at least one arm and hand to hold on to the grab bar."

A promotional photograph taken automatically shows Luffred looking straight ahead in the moments after the accident, his face without expression and his hands on the safety bar in front of him. Authorities weren't planning to release the photo.

Maha said Luffred was in a state of shock after the accident but told police Hackemer didn't say anything during the ride to indicate he was worried about falling out. The car pulled into the loading station with the T-shaped metal lap bar and fabric seatbelt still locked in place.

Maha said the state labor department is still investigating the mechanics and safety of the ride but have indicated to him that the coaster was operating correctly.

Civil liability could be determined later if a lawsuit is filed, he said. Hackemer's relatives have said they do not hold the theme park responsible.

Darien Lake General Manager Christopher Thorpe said park officials have cooperated in the investigations.

"We take our responsibility very seriously," Thorpe said in a statement. "We are not going to rush this process. As soon as we have final information on any measures to be taken within the park, we will share those with the public."

Hackemer was missing all of his left leg and most of his right leg and was not wearing prosthetic limbs when he was thrown from the ride. He was making his first visit to the park since being injured in 2008.

A funeral service for Hackemer is planned for Thursday in his hometown of Gowanda. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The ride remained closed Wednesday pending the state labor department probe.

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