DARIEN, N.Y. — A U.S. Army veteran who lost both legs in Iraq and had been trying to rebuild his life was killed after he was thrown from a roller coaster at an upstate New York amusement park.
Teams of inspectors on Saturday were examining the Ride of Steel coaster at the Darien Lake T
heme Park Resort, about 30 miles east of Buffalo.
Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer, 29, was ejected from the 208-foot-tall ride early Friday evening after climbing aboard during a family outing. Authorities and a park spokeswoman declined to say at what point in the ride the accident occurred.
The wounded veteran was missing all of his left leg and most of his right one, as well as part of a hip, because of a roadside bomb. He had only recently returned for good to his parents’ home in Gowanda following years in and out of rehabilitation at hospitals around the northeast U.S.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether attendants at the theme park had given any thought to barring Hackemer from the ride because of his missing limbs.
Hackemer 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 Catie Marks, another of Hackemer’s sisters, said Luffred told her that park attendants did not 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 must be 54 inches or taller, but add that people with “certain body proportions” may not be able to ride. 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.
Theme park officials declined to answer questions about the accident on Saturday, citing the ongoing investigation. Both the state’s labor department, which has regulatory authority over amusement park rides, and investigators from the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department were on the scene.
“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.
A Labor Department spokesman confirmed that the agency is investigating, but said it wouldn’t be releasing additional information yet on the circumstances of the accident.
The park’s website describes the Ride of Steel as one of the tallest coasters east of the Mississippi River, reaching speeds in excess of 70 mph.
The coaster’s design has been scrutinized before.
In 2004, a 55-year-old man with cerebral palsy died when he fell out of a Superman Ride of Steel coaster at a Six Flags amusement park in Agawam, Mass. State officials ultimately blamed a ride operator for not checking the restraints. That ride has the same design as the one at Darien Lake.
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 the death. Other areas of the park remained open, and patrons arrived again on Saturday morning.
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. Hackemer said he would never feel normal again, but after all his hard work felt like 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 their father, aunts and cousins.
Jody Hackemer 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.
She said she did not 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.