Saturday, July 9, 2011

Amputee Veteran James Hackemer Not the First to Fall From Darien Lake "Ride of Steel," and Did Not Meet the Ride's Height Restrictions

Word on the web is that Army veteran James T. Hackemer, who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq, died yesterday doing exactly what he wanted to be doing.

Oh, really?

He wanted to fall to his death from a 75 mph-plus speeding roller coaster while his two young daughters, waiting for their daddy, suffered a shock that will color the rest of their lives?

I'm sure Hackemer was happy when he went to Darien Lake Theme Park in New York with his family. I'm also sure he was happy when park personnel - who clearly saw his injuries - helped slide him into a car on one of the tallest coasters east of the Mississippi. But I doubt that Hackemer remained happy during those final few moments of his life when he realized that where the Taliban had failed, a sloppy and negligent theme park operator succeeded. I can't even imagine trying to gloss over Hackemer's death with such pablum as to say "he died happy."

Instead, we need to ask hard questions and point out clear facts.

First up:

How in God's name was James Hackemer allowed to ride this roller coaster?

* Customers at Darien Lake Theme Park must be at least 4'6 in order to board the Ride of Steel. Customers in doubt about their height are asked to check themselves on a test seat. Even a ride operator with no common sense nor training could see that a man with no legs could not possibly meet the height restrictions. 

* Customers with certain body proportions are not allowed to board the coaster. Surely that includes having thighs. The only way customers are secured to the Ride of Steel is via a belt across the thighs. James Hackemer did not have two full thighs. 

But this is not the first time someone has been killed or injured on a Ride of Steel. 

Less than a year ago, another rider was injured in a similar accident at Darien Lake. The rider was ejected from the Ride of Steel only a few days after it opened. 

In 2004, a rider was killed in an accident on another Ride of Steel, at Six Flags New England. The passenger in that incident also did not meet physical requirements enabling him to ride safely. The incident prompted the theme park to shorten the seat belts and install additional restraints.

In 1999, when Darien was operated by Six Flags, yet another rider was ejected from the Ride of Steel. As with the others, the victim did not meet the requirements for safe riding. 

Notice a pattern? I certainly do.

Meanwhile, Darien Lake Theme Park has posted a note on their website expressing how deeply saddened they are that the guest who "came out of the ride" "has passed."


Somehow, I am not mollified.


TenMile said...

Susan: I understand your post. But I do hope the family doesn't read it.

They've reached a mental solution to Hackemer's trauma, which I'm sure extended back to living, themselves, with the life.

Yeah, the park screwed it. But maybe the family is right?

Anonymous said...

I personally knew James and I'm offended that you would type something so graphic. Hundreds if not thousands are greiving over the death of Hack and this blog was heartless. I know that many of them will likely see this. You should have kept the cruel things you said to yourself.

BillT said...

Using emotion to trump reason is a bad hand to play, folks.

The reality is that he should never have been allowed on that roller coaster, because he was physically incapable of riding it safely.

Imagine the outcry if a now-blind pilot had been allowed to fly solo in an airplane "for old-times' sake" and crashed on takeoff...

Shanna said...

There was nothing "cruel" in this article. Why on earth would it be insensitive or offensive to the family that this man had no thighs? They know that, for Pete's sake. It wasn't a big secret. Those rides have safety restrictions for a reason. Those reasons were illustrated by the fact that someone who didn't meet those regulations was killed by the negligence of the staff.

I don't know a single person involved, but with my family's extensive military background, you can bet I know what it's like to bring home a changed soldier. He probably wanted nothing more than to ride that coaster. I'm sure that to turn him down would have been upsetting to him. But I'm also pretty sure he didn't want to die traumatically in front of his daughters.

SKK is not being disrespectful or unkind, she is stating facts. Don't shoot the messenger.

Although I'm certain I'll be crucified for this, too...

Susan Katz Keating said...

TenMile - I appreciate your comment. I've also seen your blog, and I know that you put tremendous thought behind your commentary. I don't know the family, but I am guessing that they are struggling for meaning. I don't fault them for how they frame this - but I do fault the media for blindly buying into it.

Anon - I am truly and deeply sorry for your loss and grief. I think that what you read as heartlessness is actually rage. Part of that rage is because the park personnel so grossly neglected an American soldier. The other part is on behalf of Hackemer's young daughters. I think it far healthier to tell them, This was wrong, it never should have happened, than to imply, He was happy. Can you imagine what that would do to a child's sense of self worth, to imagine all the variations on what that might mean?

Bill presented an excellent analogy. The framework applies precisely. This man should not have ridden this roller coaster. The fact that 3 previous passengers have been injured (including one killed) on the same ride only underscores the level of neglect.

I am further enraged at the way the park glossed over the incident. Their language is neither cruel nor heartless; it's neutral. I am reminded of scenes from Huxley.

RIP James Hackemer.

Susan Katz Keating said...

Shanna, thank you to your soldier and your family for your service to our country.

I understand the impulse to listen to wounded soldiers, and to respect their independence and self determination. But witnesses at the park couch this in other terms. One man told his local news station that the ride operator barely checked anyone's seat belts. If true, that is flat-out neglect.

ParachuteCutie said...

I feel that at a time like this it is more important to take into account the feelings of the family and friends. Any other "issues" can come at a later date if that's what the family wishes.

Now is not the time to be questioning the quotes and feelings of the family. Now is the time to support them in their loss and grief.

Karenna said...

There is a facebook page for Darien Park. Last night I read hundreds of wall posts from people talking about this incident. A lot of them said they SAW NEGLECT Friday and other days. A couple said they were AFRAID to get on the ride, and one woman said her son was allowed to go on a ride 3 times when he did not come near to meeting the height requirement. He was allowed to get on because the ride operator was a teenage girl who KEPT TALKING ON HER CELL PHONE and didnt check the passengers.

Today the posting function has been disabled on that page.

Marvin said...

All you people who do not want to talk about the facts of his death. What if a soldier gets killed in battle because his helmet is dysfunctional, or his armor is substandard? You would get up in the faces of whoever sent him into combat not properly prepared. Don't treat him like a pet because he was injured. He was a soldier who earned our care and respect. The park did not give it.

Amy said...

FYI when I was there at the end of June camping w/ my 3 kids, my youngest ended up being "officially" measured at guest services on the last day when he wasn't able to get on rides he had been riding for 2 days. At guest services we found out he wasn't 48 inches yet, about 1/2-3/4 inch too short. They then gave me the option on whether I wanted to have the wrist band that said under 48 inches put on, or take a risk and try to get him on the rides he had already been on. I let them know no wrist band was necessary because he WOULDN'T BE GOING ON ANY MORE RIDES HE WASN'T TALL ENOUGH FOR!!! I walked out in disgust that he had already supposably been measured and passed, but now is too short yet they were still willing to let me take him on rides he was too short for if that's the kind of mom i was??? WTF is that??? So, guest services obviously uses poor judgement! Thankfully I have enough brains to not allow my kid on coasters that he isn't quite tall enough matter how much he cried!!!

Nick said...

Ok, I'm not usually one for amusement parks but I've been on the ROS and knowing that the safety restraints mainly rely on your legs to hold you in I feel that the ride attendants should not have let the man ride. I know it sounds rude and I'm not trying to be disrespectful to any veteran of the military I support our troops 100%. I just feel that he nor anyone without legs should not be let on such a ride. I would rather fight a civil case where I was mocked for being discriminatory towards a veteran than potentially face a criminal trial for negligence.

Amy said...

When the Ride of Steel first opened you only had to be 48 inches to ride it. They increased it after the first guy fell out w/in a couple days of opening and after the other Superman coasters elsewhere proved to have people falling out/ dying on them. The park does try to keep people safe. But, it's left up to young kids running the rides whether or not the rules are followed.

Jennifer J. R. said...

I worked at Darien lake years ago. Not sure how they train their ride ops now but I can sum up my training very briefly. It was all of 10 minutes per ride I was "trained" on. How to start/stop the ride, the speech they give at the beginning /end of the ride, and how to check restraints (was told to quickly tap my hand on each restraint along my side to show I had physically touched it) Bam training done. And i was hired for ticket sales. When I told them I wasn't comfortable running rides I was told I had no choice cause they were short staffed. The next day when I was told to go to rides again I said no cause i wasn't trained properly. Again told I had no choice, i said i quit. They told me I had 2 options do what I was told or get fired. I told them it was hard to fire someone who quit and i walked to my car and left.

I would like to add I haven't been back to Darien lake since and that was like a decade ago. And i won't take my child there.

Amy said...

Use google and find the pic someone took of the ROS sign. It state you need both legs and can't wear prostetics. And no I wasn't there. My comments are based off of what witness in the same train w/ him said. They specifically told the news that he was assisted into the train w/ no legs on!!! I understand that he wanted this more than anything. I too would have had a hard time saying no if I was the one left w/ the decision to let him ride. Don't forget about all the other people this has affected... like the people riding w/ him. They saw a body fly out of the roller coaster!!! There were people on the platform who saw a train come back missing one person w/ the rest screaming and crying. And did you see the interview w/ the 14 year old witness who said they were all screaming not to run the train ahead of them because someone flew out and yet the stupid operator ran the next train too. Imagine being on that train that flew by a dead body on the ground!

Anonymous said...

I read this in an article.

"That is the worst thing I've ever seen in my life," said Sobeck. "I've seen someone dead, but I've never seen anyone die in front of me. When we were stopped short of the loading dock, we were yelling, 'Help, someone fell out,' but they (park employees) smiled and waved — they thought we were screaming because the ride was scary. But then they noticed Sgt. Hackemer was not there."

Lynch said, "I saw him rise out of his seat and his friend tried to grab him. I knew he was going to let go. When we were waiting and trying to scream to the staff, they did not acknowledge us. Before the ride, they did one check. I don't think he should have been on the ride. There were little children on that ride and people were running out of there. His friend was in such shock, that his arms were still up and in the same position at the end of the ride that they were when he grabbed him. He did not move whatsoever."

"It's bad to deny him to ride, but they should not have allowed him to ride," said Sobeck, 18, a sophomore at Alfred State College. "The ride holds you in by the shins and thighs and a seatbelt. He was having fun, I'm sure he was on other rides."

Pearson, 16, said she shut her eyes as it was happening.

"I closed them, I remembering thinking, 'I don't want to see this,' Lauren grabbed my leg later and that's when I opened them. I keep thinking about it, I keep replaying it in my mind," she said Saturday. "We were screaming at them, "Someone fell off, someone fell off!’ They didn't do anything at first. They were talking amongst themselves, then we kept screaming and they listened to us. They thought we were yelling and having fun."

Sobeck recalled, "The rest of the ride, I just stared. I could not believe it. As soon as we got off the ride, we had to wash ourselves off. We then went to the car and sat there. We calmed ourselves down and tried to figure out what happened."

Patrick said...

for respect for our fallen hero im never going to ride that coaster again just to repect the one who died on it i wont feel right rest in peace james

Anonymous said...

Isn't this somewhat like the headline feature we frequently see in super market tabloids?

Granted, there was apparently a safety violation that resulted in a death. Adding all the graphic extras about the guy's physical limitations serves no purpose other than to excite members of the public who dote on the scalacious. The lawyers will take over and extort money from everyone as they do in most such happenings.

Seems like this is a stretch to present for discussion as a military topic. The ride operators probably did not see the guy as a diabled veteran; just a horrbily crippled indivudual who obviously should not have been on a roller coaster, who they winked and let on.

Anonymous said...

I will add to the previous comment in a way. I fly on commercial aircraft almost constantly on business. I am frequently amazed at the frail, disabled passengers that are allowed on. Many of them can't get to their seat un assisted, can't get to the bathroom un assisted and can't get off the plane un assisted. And frequently the assistance required is massive.

If there was ever a serious accident with the aircraft, these people obviously could not get out an emergency exit, and other passnegers might be injured or killed staying back to help them off.

Susan Katz Keating said...

Anon, the aircraft passenger analogy does not work. You are positing an accident scenario. This is about a supposedly safe scenario that became an accident when someone who should not have been placed on the ride was allowed to board.

BillT said...

Adding all the graphic extras about the guy's physical limitations serves no purpose other than to excite members of the public who dote on the scalacious.

On the contrary -- the fact that he was a double amputee is central to the story. If he'd had his legs, the lap restraint would have kept him from being ejected, and there would *be* no story.

BillT said...

Seems like this is a stretch to present for discussion as a military topic.

Why did you assume it was presented as a military topic?

Gary Huber said...

There are certain laws that cannot be broken without dire consequences.... I'm not trying to be glib. The facts are the height limitation / safety restrictions are very much related to certain laws of physics which absent a certain portion of mass and lever below the restraint of the "seat belt" will result in the body following the Centrifugal forces applied by the ride.

Scotty said...

i don't feel sorry for darien lake or the workers i feel sorry for all the other riders on the ride that got tramatized from this he died having fun the other riders got tramatized trying to have fun my self my oldest daughter loves the ride and will more than likely still ride it i don't think he should have been on it and if it didn't matter about his legs being gone then why did they have him do a weiver there was a risk the sad part is lots of kids and adults are now tramatized over one man wanting to ride a ride he shouldn't have been on there shouldn't be weivers to sign start caring about all other riders on the rides in cases like this if my daughter was on thet ride and got tramatized darien lake and the family would be paying for conseling for her no matter what. that is my thought and i do have freedome of speech again sorry for the loss of this man don't like hearing of anyone gettting hurt or die

Darien Lake said...

Darien Lake Theme Park Resort is deeply saddened by an incident that occurred at 5:30 pm Friday, July 8 on Ride of Steel. An adult male guest came out of the ride and unfortunately the guest has passed. We are currently investigating the circumstances of the situation along with local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the guest at this time.

Our guests should be assured that nothing is more important than the safety of our guests and team members. More facts will be shared with our guests and the public once confirmed. Ride of Steel will not operate until the investigation is complete. The rest of the park is in operation.

Guests who were at Darien Lake and were witness to the July 8 incident on Ride of Steel are encouraged to contact the park to provide information or seek assistance by calling 585-599-5120 or emailing

Anonymous said...

The aircraft accident analogy is indeed appropriate. Flying in commercial aircraft is presented to the public as safe , but accidents do happen. My thesis is that some of the terribly disabled passengers who are allow to fly, should not be.

Anonymous said...

The aircraft accident analogy is indeed appropriate. Flying in commercial aircraft is presented to the public as safe , but accidents do happen. My thesis is that some of the terribly disabled passengers who are allow to fly, should not be.

Anonymous said...

Dear Moderator:

The aircraft analogy is indeed apprropriate. Flying on a commercial aircraft is presented to the public as safe, but accidents do happen. Allowing some of the very frail and disabled to fly that are frequently allowed to do so by the airlines, presnets the same risk to the passenger and to others who will have to help them in the event of an accident.

Anonymous said...

My son is married to one of the Hackemer daughters,and what a loving, caring family they all are!I believe James' death could have been prevented if only the employee insisted that James not ride the rollercoaster. He certainly did not meet the ride's height restrictions. I totally believe the park is at fault for this unfortunate accident. They hire uncaring, uninformed and untrained personnel to operate rides for unsuspecting people who just want to enjoy a day at an amusement park. Will it take another death before any changes are made? RIP, James. You are truly missed by everyone who knew you and loved you.

chief torpedoman said...

I need to diagree with the airplane analogy. The airplane is a mode of transportation, the Ride of Steel is not.
Would you say that a handicapped indivudual could not travel on a public bus? The owners/operators of the Ride of Steel are responsible to ensure ALL passengers are safely secured. They could not do that with a man havning no legs and should not have let him ride.

But, hey it was another ticket sale. More money in the owners pockets.

BillT said...

The aircraft analogy falls flat.

During normal aircraft operations, passengers can be reasonably certain that they will remain within the aircraft, unharmed, regardless of physical condition.

During normal roller coaster operations, passengers can be reasonably certain that they will be violently ejected from the car if their physical characteristics do not allow the restraints to function as designed.

Dbie said...

Anon Mother-in-Law:
This whole thing is incredibly tragic... and I'm glad to see that you can tell our comments are based upon the park not following safety rules. Please pass along my condolences to the Hackemer family.

The first article I read about this didn't say if he was wearing his prosthetics, but my first thought was... if he wasn't wearing him, how could he have possibly met the height requirements? It wasn't a cruel comment; just fact. If the safety harness is designed to fit around your thighs, and you don't have any.. how could they possibly strap you in correctly? Judging by these comments, allowing short riders appears to be a systemic problem at the park. I hope they shut them down and properly retrain ride employees.

ajlounyinjurylaw said...

Sad that an employee at the park couldn't make a simple decision of just saying no. I know there is a temptation of helping and giving someone that has had a loss of limbs, but the price on this decision of not saying NO was too great.