By Eric Johnson
BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - As investigators work to determine how a double-amputee veteran fell to his death from a New York rollercoaster on Friday, one lawmaker stepped up a campaign for federal oversight of fixed-site theme parks.
Most such parks are regulated by local and state authorities, including the one where on Friday U.S. Army Sgt. James Hackemer was ejected from a rollercoaster that reaches a speed of 70 miles per hour.
Hackemer, a 29-year-old local war hero who lost his legs while serving in Iraq, suffered fatal injuries in the fall from the Ride of Steel rollercoaster at the Darien Lake Theme Park and Resort, east of Buffalo.
The ride, at 208 feet, is one of the tallest rollercoasters east of the Mississippi River, according to the Darien Lake Theme Park's website.
"I want to live my life to the fullest from here on out," Hackemer told local news media after his rehabilitation.
According to local authorities and news reports, Hackemer lost both legs and a hip when a roadside bomb exploded when he served in Iraq in 2008. He suffered two strokes, blood loss, and brain damage in the attack and then spent three years in rehabilitation, relearning how to eat and speak. He was released in March and lived in Gowanda, New York.
"The investigation is still ongoing and there is no way to predict how long the process will take," Darien Lake Theme Park spokeswoman Cassandra Okon told Reuters on Sunday.
"We are all brokenhearted by this tragic accident and will continue our support of both the family and the investigation," Darien Lake Theme Park Resort General Manager Chris Thorpe said in a statement.
Hackemer will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, according to news reports.
BETTER FEDERAL RESOURCES
The accident reignited an effort to place fixed-site theme parks under federal regulatory oversight, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a democrat from Massachusetts who has long advocated for broader oversight, told Reuters on Sunday.
The local and state regulators who currently oversee amusement parks may lack the budget resources and technical experience to carry out effective safety checks and investigate accidents, Markey said.
"While the cause of the accident that claimed the life of Sgt. Hackemer is still unknown, one thing is crystal clear: Hypercoasters that hurtle riders at speeds exceeding 70 miles per hour along 200-foot drops should not be exempt from federal safety oversight," Markey said.
He plans to introduce legislation, which he has proposed multiple times before, to make fixed-site amusement parks subject to the regulatory authority of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal consumer protection body. The move could prevent future injuries, he said.
Owners of the amusement parks as well as industry lobbyists oppose the legislation.
"Safety is the number one priority of the amusement park industry, but tragic events are extremely rare and would not be less frequent under federal oversight," Colleen Mangone, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said.
There is no evidence that federal oversight would improve the amusement park industry's excellent safety record, Mangone said, adding the likelihood of being seriously injured after a fixed-site ride in the U.S. was 1 in 9 million rides.
The approximately 400 fixed-site amusement parks in the United States are visited by 280 million guests annually, she said, adding that there were an average of three ride-related fatalities annually in the country.
There were an estimated 685 serious injuries at fixed-site amusement parks requiring at least 24 hours of hospital treatment between 2003 and 2009, according to the National Safety Council, a research firm working on behalf of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
A Democratic minority in the House of Representatives will likely prevent Markey from pushing through the legislation when he introduces it this session. Republicans have not co-sponsored similar legislation. A 2008 vote on similar legislation received opposition on both sides of the aisle.
Hackemer is survived by his parents and two children. His mother, Nancy, told local media after the accident that her son had been helped on to the ride by other people and was "doing what he wanted to do."
"It's going to help a little bit that he was happy," Hackemer's mother Nancy told local reporters after the accident. "We shouldn't have had him for these last three years and four months."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston)