Death on a roller coaster

An Iraq war veteran's death at an amusement park raises serious safety issues

Death on a roller coaster

National News/Keystone Press Agency

Late last week, Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran who had lost both legs in combat, died after falling out of the Ride of Steel roller coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park in Genesee County, N.Y. Though the park website stipulates passengers must be taller than 4½ feet, and that those “with certain body proportions may not be able to ride,” this accident wasn’t the roller coaster’s first.

In 1999, one day after the Superman: Ride of Steel rollercoaster opened (Superman was dropped from the name in 2007), a 37-year-old man was thrown from his seat and hospitalized with minor injuries. Park officials said his weight—in excess of 300 lb.—was probably to blame. Elsewhere, in 2001 on the ride at Six Flags New England in Springfield, Mass., 21 passengers were injured, some with broken noses, after two cars collided. Then, in 2004, an overweight man who had cerebral palsy fell out of the same Superman: Ride of Steel roller coaster and died.

Rose Ann Hirsh, author of Western New York Amusement Parks, says that the few accidents that happen on roller coasters are less likely to be due to mechanical failure than a result of human negligence. “I wish he had thought twice before he did it, and I wish Darien Lake had thought twice about it,” says Hirsh of the Hackemer tragedy.

James Hackemer was born in Gowanda, N.Y., the youngest of six children, to John Hackemer Jr., a correctional officer, and Nancy, a homemaker. He enlisted in the army before graduating high school, and would serve in Kosovo and Iraq. He married a fellow soldier, Alycia, and had one young daughter and was expecting another when, on March 14, 2008, he was on patrol in Baghdad and a roadside bomb detonated beside his vehicle. “I lost both my legs right away, lost all my blood twice, I had two strokes and I was in a coma for eight weeks,” said James in a video posted to YouTube.

“The advice was to pull the plug because he was nothing but a vegetable,” says Clifford Waugh, the 81-year-old Pentecostal pastor at the Hackemer’s family’s church, the Victory Tabernacle. But James’s father wouldn’t give up. As Waugh recounts it: “He said, ‘James, in the name of Jesus Christ open your eyes.’ At that instant, he began to blink his eyes.” For the next three years, James was in recovery in different clinics; he and his wife divorced.

As a national war hero, James was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. This April, for his homecoming to Gowanda, thousands of people lined the streets. That month, he went to the LEEK Hunting and Mounting Preserve, a facility offering outdoor programs to wounded veterans. “He was really interested in what life had to give him,” says Amber Woods, public relations officer at LEEK and a friend. “If that meant to go and shoot turkey, he was 100 per cent excited about shooting turkey. If it was eating ribs, he was 100 per cent excited about doing that.”

At around 5:30 p.m. on Friday, July 8, James was at the park with his sister, Jody, and his two little girls when he boarded the Ride of Steel. After he died, Jody said to reporters it had to have been her brother’s best time since he was injured: “It was the only time in the last 3½ years that he felt completely normal again.”