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 Theme 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, and had only recently returned for good to his parents’ home in Gowanda, N.Y., 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.
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.
Hackemer was severely wounded in 2008 by an armor-penetrating warhead called an explosively formed penetrator. In an 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.
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 recently returned from 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.