Inspectors study NY roller coaster in vet's death

July 10, 2011 - 3:14 AM
Roller Coaster Death

FILE In this Aug. 7, 2000 photo, The Ride of Steel formerly known as Superman Ride of Steel roller coaster is shown in in Darien, N.Y. Sgt. James Hackemer, a U.S. Army veteran who lost his legs while deployed in Iraq was thrown from the 200-foot-tall roller coaster at the upstate theme park on Friday, July 8, 2011 and was killed. Hackemer, 29, was ejected from the Ride of Steel roller coaster at about 5:30 p.m., the Genesee County sheriff's office said. (AP Photo /Buffalo News, Robert Kirkham)

DARIEN, N.Y. (AP) — Teams of inspectors were examining a 208-foot-tall amusement park roller coaster after a U.S. Army veteran who lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq a few years ago was thrown from it to his death.

Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer was ejected from the Ride of Steel coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park Resort, about 30 miles east of Buffalo, where he had been on a family outing. The wounded veteran was missing all of his left leg and most of his right leg and had only recently returned for good to his parents' home in Gowanda to rebuild his life following years in and out of rehabilitation at hospitals throughout the northeast United States.

Safety authorities and an amusement park spokeswoman declined to say at what point in the Friday evening roller coaster ride Hackemer's accident occurred. It was unclear whether attendants at the park had given any thought to barring him from the ride because of his missing limbs.

Hackemer's relatives said he likely wasn't wearing prosthetic legs when he was thrown from the ride.

Park officials on Saturday declined to answer questions about the accident, citing the ongoing investigation. The state's Department of Labor, which has regulatory authority over amusement park rides, and investigators from the Genesee County Sheriff's Department were on the scene.

A Department of Labor spokesman confirmed that the agency was investigating but said it wouldn't be releasing additional information yet on the circumstances of the accident.

Hackemer, 29, was accompanied by a dozen family members, including one of his sisters, Jody Hackemer.

"He was determined to ride every roller coaster," she said. "That minute he was on that ride, he probably felt the happiest and most normal he's felt in three and a half years."

Hackemer rode the coaster with a college-age nephew, Ashton Luffred. Family members who gathered at the Hackemers' home Saturday said the young man was too shaken to speak with a reporter.

But another of Hackemer's sisters, Catie Marks, said Luffred told her that park attendants didn't challenge the disabled veteran's desire to ride the coaster.

"Not one objection," she said. "Not one question."

People without both legs are barred from at least two other coasters at the park, the Motocoaster and the Predator.

Rules posted on the resort's website for the Ride of Steel say that guests with "certain body proportions" may not be able to ride it. The website also suggests that guests try using a test seat at the coaster's station house.

Passengers are held in by a bar that sits across their legs.

The park's website describes the Ride of Steel as one of the tallest coasters east of the Mississippi River and says it reaches speeds in excess of 70 mph.

The coaster's design has been scrutinized before.

In 2004, a man with cerebral palsy died when he fell out of a Superman Ride of Steel coaster, which has the same design, at a Six Flags amusement park in Agawam, Mass. State officials ultimately blamed a ride operator for not checking the restraints.

In 1999, a passenger fell out of his seat on the Darien Lake coaster and broke several ribs. Investigators later concluded that the lap restraining bar hadn't been pushed down far enough to lock properly because of the man's large size.

The roller coaster and surrounding area were closed after Hackemer's death Friday evening. Other areas of the park remained open, and patrons arrived again on Saturday morning. There was no word on whether the roller coaster would resume running by Sunday.

Hackemer was severely wounded in 2008 by an armor-penetrating warhead called an explosively formed penetrator. In a video interview with The Buffalo News this year, he described the aftermath of the attack, a hazy period in which he lost tremendous amounts of blood, had two strokes and was in a coma for six weeks at a series of hospitals.

The blood loss caused brain damage. Afterward, he had to relearn to eat and speak.

"I had to learn all my basic skills again," he told the newspaper.

After finally going home, he said, his parents had constructed ramps around the house and were trying to make him comfortable. He said he would never feel normal again but after all his hard work felt as though he was "pretty close."

Hackemer was married to a fellow soldier from his unit, Sgt. Alycia Hackemer, who was pregnant with the couple's second daughter when his vehicle was hit. The couple later divorced. Hackemer's two little girls were at the theme park Friday with him, aunts and cousins.

Jody Hackemer said her brother had recently returned from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he was fitted with new prosthetic legs. She said she didn't believe he was wearing the prostheses on the roller coaster.

"What gives us peace right now with this whole situation is we've had James for the last three and a half years when we were told he wouldn't survive, we were told he would never wake up, he would be a vegetable," she said. "And he overcame that, and we overcame it as a family. So I look on the last three and a half years as a blessing."

The death was at least the second in the last couple of months at Northeast amusement parks. In early June, an 11-year-old girl on a class trip to Morey's Mariner's Landing Pier in Wildwood, N.J., fell about 150 feet from near the top of a Ferris wheel and was killed. A state report found the ride's restraints to be working properly, and investigators haven't been able to determine how the girl, who was riding alone, got out of the Giant Wheel gondola.

The Darien Lake Theme Park Resort said its prayers were with Hackemer's friends and family.

"We are all brokenhearted by this tragic accident and will continue our support of both the family and the investigation," the amusement park's general manager, Chris Thorpe, said in a statement.