Questions swirl after vet falls to death from NY roller coaster

Ride of Steel

Credit: AP Photo / David Duprey

Sgt. James Hackemer, a U.S. Army veteran who lost his legs while deployed in Iraq, was thrown from the 200-foot-tall Ride of Steel roller coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park on Friday.

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by CAROLYN THOMPSON

Associated Press

Posted on July 10, 2011 at 6:00 PM

Updated Sunday, Jul 10 at 10:13 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — A 208-foot-tall roller coaster in upstate New York remained closed Sunday amid questions about the falling death of an Iraq war veteran who lost both his legs to a roadside bomb and the decision to allow him on the ride.

Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer was ejected Friday from the Ride of Steel coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park Resort, located between Buffalo and Rochester.

Amusement park industry consultant Dennis Speigel said two things should be considered when determining whether someone should be allowed on a ride.

""One is rider responsibility and then there is operator responsibility, and those two issues have to homogenize," Speigel said Sunday. "This just seems to me that it was a bad decision on both parts."

Hackemer's relatives have said they don't hold the park responsible for his death.

"It's nobody's fault. It was an accident. James thought it wasn't an issue," Jody Hackemer said over the weekend of her brother's disability.

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

Rules posted on the park's website for the Ride of Steel say guests with "certain body proportions" may not be able to ride it, but it doesn't give specifics. The rules specifically bar people without both legs from riding at least two other coasters in the park, the Motocoaster and the Predator.

Although an investigation of the accident is incomplete, Speigel, who is not involved in the probe, wondered whether Hackemer's military service played a role in the decision to allow the ride.

Parks in general are sensitive to the military, he said, with many offering significant discounts and ticket giveaways to service members and their families. As of July 5, since the start of U.S. military operations in Iraq, 32,130 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action, according to the Department of Defense's weekly tally.

"Here we have a situation where that individual has seen some pretty incredible things, I would imagine, and if I had to guess, was saying, `I can ride this. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine.' And then you begin dealing with the forces of physics and it's a whole different situation," said Speigel, a past president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade association.

Ben Sobeck of Wellsville said he was with two friends on the Ride of Steel coaster a few seats behind Hackemer, who was riding with a college-age nephew, Ashton Luffred. The friends watched in horror as Hackemer was lifted from the seat and thrown as the car went over a hill after two big dips and some turns.

"It's bad to deny him to ride, but they should not have allowed him to ride," Sobeck, an Alfred State College student, told the Hornell Evening Tribune. "The ride holds you in by the shins and thighs and a seatbelt."

One 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."

Hackemer, a father of two, suffered two strokes and spent six weeks in a coma after being wounded in 2008 by an armor-penetrating warhead. Brain-damaged by blood loss, he had to relearn to eat and speak.

In a video interview with The Buffalo News this year, he's seen doing pushups and other exercises. He told of having to relearn basic skills and how his parents had built ramps around the house to accommodate his wheelchair.

"I'll never feel actual normal like I was before," he said, "but I think I'm pretty close to it."

Jody Hackemer said she had no doubt her brother died doing something he loved.

"The minute he was on that ride, he probably felt the happiest and most normal he's felt in 3 1/2 years," she said.

It's a sentiment other amputees and veterans could relate to.

"Doing what he did, I completely understand that," said Jack O'Connor, a Vietnam veteran who coordinates mentors for veterans in Buffalo's court system. "He wanted to go on the roller coaster. He wanted to be normal again, like everyone else, and not be thinking about some of the things that probably happened to him overseas."

"You want to fit in again," said O'Connor, who also is a mental health consultant for Erie County. "You don't want to be that outside person, you don't want to be the person having the bad dreams and having the problems. You want to fit in to society. "

Molly French, who lost both of her legs below the knee following an infection that began with strep throat in 2008, said she, too, understands and has even thought about whether to ride a roller coaster since her life-altering illness.

"Just going to the amusement park and feeling normal and waiting in line with everybody else and doing what you used to love to do, I totally get that feeling," said French, who runs a support group for fellow amputees in Greenville, Ohio. "I'm sure he was the same way, just trying to figure out how to live his life again as an amputee."

The IAAPA's statistics show the likelihood of being seriously injured on a permanently located amusement park ride in the United States is 1 in 9 million, spokeswoman Colleen Mangone said.

"Events like this are extremely rare and safety is the No. 1 priority for the amusement park industry," she said.

The park's website said the Ride of Steel coaster will be closed until the investigation is completed.

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