ST. LOUIS – The father and stepmother of a St. Louis County teen who fell to his death Thursday night from a Florida amusement park ride said the eighth grader dreamed of a professional football career so that he could someday buy his mother a house.
“That was his dream, and he was on his way,” said his stepmother, Wendy Wooten, 59, of Venice. “He had so many scouts looking at him. He was going to be a great football player. ”
Authorities said 14-year-old Tire Sampson fell from the Orlando Free Fall ride that opened last year at ICON Park in the city’s tourist district. The free-fall ride stands 430 feet tall and is billed as the world’s tallest free-standing drop tower, according to the park’s website.
It holds 30 passengers as it rises in the air, rotates around the tower and then tilts to face the ground before free falling at more than 75 mph.
Tire was taken to a hospital, where he died, authorities said. The Free Fall ride and an adjacent ride, the Sling Shot, have been closed indefinitely.
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Orange County Sheriff John Mina told reporters Friday that Tire’s death “appears to be just a terrible tragedy.”
A video aired Friday by NBC’s “Today” show appeared to show passengers on the ride discussing issues with an over-the-shoulder restraint harness Thursday night. The ride then began its trek up the tower around 11 pm Eastern time on Thursday before someone is later seen falling from the ride.
“We are absolutely saddened and devastated by what happened, and our hearts go out to this young man’s family,” John Stine, sales director with the Slingshot Group, which owns the ride, told The Associated Press.
Wooten and Tire’s father, Yarnell Sampson, said Tire had gone to the amusement park Thursday with teammates and chaperones from the St. Louis Bad Boyz football club, who were in Orlando for a weeklong training camp.
Tire lived in Berkeley with his mother, his father said.
Tire stood 6 feet, 5 inches tall, weighed 330 pounds and was training to play high school football but had not yet decided whether to play at Cardinal Ritter College Prep or East St. Louis High School.
City Garden Montessori School, which Tire attended, sent a letter to parents on Friday saying counseling for students would be available Monday when students return from spring break.
The school also plans to memorialize Tire, school officials said in the letter.
“Tire has been a City Garden student for many years, and was a beloved, and treasured member of our City Garden family. We will miss him tremendously and our hearts go out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time, ”Christie Huck, the school’s CEO and executive director, and principal Crystal Isom said in the letter.
Wooten and Sampson said they’ve seen videos that have gone viral online of Tire and friends beginning their ascent and someone remarking that he was not restrained in the seat.
They said they are still gathering details about what led to the incident but have learned Tire may have been turned away from other rides at ICON because he exceeded size and weight limits.
They also said they’re learning disturbing details about Tire’s final moments and were juggling calls from lawyers during a Post-Dispatch reporter’s telephone interview with the couple.
“What I’m hearing is his friend was talking to him before the situation happened,” Sampson said. “He was like, he does not feel comfortable with the situation, ‘The thing’s not pushing down, you know what I’m saying? And if I do not make it through then tell my mom and dad I love ’em.’ ”
Sampson said Tire was his only child and that authorities were making arrangements to fly his body back to St. Louis. Louis. He and Wooten called Tire a “gentle giant” who’d make sure to say “sir” and “ma’am” in conversations, shake hands and make eye contact.
“He had all the best qualities I never had,” Sampson said. “He was intelligent. He was a good kid. He was a square. When he got focused on this football thing, his grades had to be up to play football, and that’s all he cared about. People were telling him, ‘You got a chance to make it, man,’ and he started to believe it. “
The Associated Press contributed information to this report.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the school Tire Sampson attended.