Current update: 12:42 p.m.
Despite warning signs for patrons and training of employees regarding certain people with physical disabilities not being allowed on the Ride of Steel at Darien Lake, Sgt. James Hackemer was able to embark on the rollercoaster.
Hackemer should have been able to see a warning sign prior to boarding the ride that said patrons must have two legs, and the employee training manual mentions in more than one place that people with specific disabilities cannot be allowed on the ride, according to Sheriff Gary Maha.
“Darien Lake violated their own policies and procedures by allowing him to get on this ride,” Maha said.
Maha presented the findings of Sheriff's Office investigators at a press conference in Batavia this morning.
Hackemer, who lost both of his legs -- one leg was amputated up to his pelvis -- to a roadside bomb in Iraq, died at Darien Lake on Friday after being ejected from a seat at the front of the ride's red train.
Operators at the Ride of Steel were well aware of Hackemer when he boarded the ride and knew that he didn't have legs, Maha said.
The operators -- typically teenagers -- had no explanation for why they violated Darien Lake Theme Park policy by allowing Hackemer to board the ride, Maha said.
The ride rules, which are posted at both the entrance and exit, read "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. In addition, guests must have sufficient body strength and the complete use of a least one arm and hand to hold the grab bar. No guests may ride holding anything or with artificial limbs attached."
The ride's exit ramp, in compliance with the American With Disabilities Act, serves as the entrance for disabled patrons. Hackemer boarded the ride after coming up that ramp. According to Sgt. Steve Mullen, Hackemer would have passed the sign to board the ride.
When Hackemer was ejected, his body was thrown forward and then struck the front of the train. At that point, Hackemer's body was thrown clear of the train and the tracks and landed on a grassy area below the train's third hill, which is on the Route 77 side of the ride.
"With the amount of force of the ride, he didn’t have the physical attributes necessary to be on the ride," Maha said.
Like many theme park rides, the rollercoaster has automated cameras near the end of the ride which takes pictures of patrons that can later be purchased. The picture of Hackemer's car, according to Maha, shows an empty seat with the lap bar still down and the safety belt still buckled.
"He just came out of his seat," Maha said.
Maha emphasized that the ride is safe. It was inspected the Department of Labor in May and again following the accident and no mechanical problems were found.
"I would get on the ride," Maha said. "It is safe ride."
Hackemer's nephew helped the Gowanda resident into the ride and was sitting next to him in the front car.
"There was very little discussion between the ride attendants and Mr. Hackemer or his nephew (while he as getting on the ride)," Mullen said.
There's no indication that Hackemer was in any trouble during the ride prior to the ride's third hill.
Maha described the nephew as "in shock" when investigator's interviewed him after the accident.
Darien Lake provided grief counselors to employees, Hackemer's family and any patrons who sought help the night of the accident, Mullen said.
The Ride of Steel has two trains -- a red one and a blue one -- and each is comprised of eight cars that hold four people each. The red train Hackemer was on was not full, so only about 24 people where on the train at the time of the accident.
Because ride attendants did not hold all of the riders at the location following the accident, investigators have only been able to interview those riders who have made themselves known.
While investigators would have liked to have talked with all the riders, Maha said that the few investigators could interview gave consistent reports of what they saw.
As the ride pulled into the boarding area, riders were screaming and yelling, according to Mullen, making it very clear there had been an accident and that a rider had been thrown from the train.
The accident has been investigated by both the Sheriff's Office and the NYS Department of Labor. The DOL's investigation is not entirely completed, but DOL officials met with the Sheriff's investigators yesterday to go over their findings.
The Sheriff's Office investigation was aimed primarily at determining if there was any criminal liability in the death of Hackemer and the investigation, after consultation with District Attorney Lawrence Friedman, concluded the death was accidental. Criminal charges are unlikely.