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Tuesday, December 05, 2023
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A Bond of Steel

ÔSuperman' Ashton Luffred heroically copes, fights, and heals

Ashton Luffred has lived several miracles in his 19 years so it didn't strike him as unusual to be heading over to the Ride of Steel at Darien Lake with his wheelchair-bound uncle James last July. Sgt. James Hackemer, a decorated Iraq veteran, had lost both legs and his left hip when a roadside bomb blasted through his Humvee in 2008.

Hackemer still loved a good time and was an adventurer. He not only wanted to go on the Ride of Steel, he wanted to go on all the fast rides at the park that day. He wanted to feel the rush of the wind and those fearful drops again.

It was the last thing he ever did.

About 90 seconds into the ride, as the car hit the peak of the second hill, Hackemer, unable to hold on to the protective bar, flew out of his seat to his death.

Luffred, a sophomore nursing major, was sitting next to him.

"He didn't just fly off to the side when he went out, he flew right in front of us," Luffred said.

The family has filed a wrongful death suit against businesses at the park. The suit claims that operators violated safety rules when they let the double-amputee on the 208-foot roller coaster.

The roller coaster ran over Hackemer, killing him instantly. Luffred and those next to him emerged sprayed with blood.

"I guess we just busted his head, or his body or his shoulder or whatever and then he fell," Luffred said.

It is the most excruciating memory Luffred has, and it continues to haunt him. His only solace is that his uncle's terror only lasted a second.

Now, six months later, he still suffers from the memories of that day and the loss of his beloved uncle. Yet he also knows his uncle would have wanted him to move forward. That's what he always did, anyway.

So he's trying.

Luffred took the fall semester off to deal with the accident, but now he's back at UB. He's determined to live his life as fully as his uncle did.

"Sometimes I think man it would be awesome if Uncle James was around," Luffred said. "But I know he still is. Sometimes I can feel him."


Hackemer and Luffred had bonded over death. Both had come close to dying. Hackemer in Iraq. Luffred on an operating table. The first time Luffred was 6, the second time he was 14.

Luffred was born with numerous malfunctioning organs and spent his childhood taking fistfuls of medicine and shuffling between doctor's appointments. When he was 6 he had his first transplant – his small intestine. It happened around Thanksgiving.

"[Being] that young, I wasn't sure what the concept of a transplant was," Luffred said. "I had a bunch of surgeries up until then, so it didn't really bother me being in any more hospitals."

The transplant worked, but only until 2005, when he was 14. Doctors told his parents his organs were failing. He needed a rare and risky six-organ multivisceral transplant that would give him a new large and small intestine, duodenum, liver, pancreas, one new kidney to replace his faulty two, and an add-on to his stomach.

He missed all of sixth and most of seventh grade recovering. When he started eighth grade, he was the smallest kid in his class.

His mother, Roxanne Luffred, called the recovery miraculous, especially since he hasn't been in the hospital much since.

When his uncle came home from Iraq in 2008, nobody could relate to him more than Luffred.

"Once James got hurt it changed the whole dynamic of their relationship," Roxanne Luffred said. "It bonded them. They knew what it was like to be in that situation that nobody else could even fathom being in. They were survivors."

The two became pals.

They both were drawn to adventure. They wanted to have as much fun as they could.

Luffred's best friend, 18-year-old Kyle Pries said Luffred may be making up for a childhood spent in hospitals.

"I feel like he thinks he missed out on a lot when he was in the hospitals," Pries said. "He just enjoys himself now. He doesn't have time to really dwell on stuff and have pity [for himself] and stuff like that."

Last spring, during Luffred's freshman year, Luffred and Hackemer, who won a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, hung out on weekends at Hackemer's home in Gowanda. They watched movies, went hunting, and cheered for the Buffalo Sabres, their favorite hockey team. They even went to a Sabres-Flyers playoff game. Generous and eager to help his nephew, Hackemer often slipped Luffred a little cash for extra expenses.


The Darien Lake trip on July 8 was supposed to be a fun day out for the whole family.

Although Hackemer and Luffred went in with the rest of the family, their real goal was to split off and hit the coasters.

"He was pretty excited," Luffred said. "He didn't have legs, so I can't say he had a jump in his step, but there was a little jump in the way he pushed his wheelchair around. He was pretty happy to be in the park and have a chance to go on a roller coaster. He was like a little kid almost."

It had been years since either had been in the park, but from the start, Hackemer had one destination in mind: The Superman. The coaster, renamed the Ride of Steel in 2007, incorporates big drops, fast turns, and speeds up to 74 mph.

When he saw the gleaming steel coaster, Hackemer brimmed. He'd been through so much in his 29 years, and particularly in the past three, that he was ready to lose himself to fun.

After the explosion in Iraq, Hackemer had lain in a coma for two months. He'd then had to re-learn how to speak, write, brush his teeth, and put on a pair of pants without legs.

Now, he was back. He'd returned to Gowanda that April. He wasn't whole but he was confident.

He didn't want pity.

He wanted to keep living.

So did Luffred.

The two made their way right to the front of the Ride of Steel. Since Hackemer was in a wheelchair, they got to cut the line.

They boarded the ride almost instantly. Luffred lifted Hackemer in and they settled into the front row of the first car.

The ride quickly started its ascent toward the famous 205-foot drop. During the climb, Luffred began to worry. He thought about the lap bar and how his uncle only had one stump leg. The other leg was hipless. Would he stay in? There were bars to hold onto, but Hackemer still didn't have full control of his motor skills.

They made it over the first hill and Hackemer was all right.

Then they moved to the second.

"As soon as you start to go down, you still have like that moving inertia," Luffred said. "So he actually just keeps going as we're going down. Just completely flies over his seat."

Luffred sees the frames of that second over and over in his mind.

His mother said it terrorized him all summer.

"He re-lived it every single day," Roxanne Luffred said. "That's all he thought about all day long. And my husband said ‘Are you sleeping?' and he said yes I'm sleeping but when I'm awake, it's all I think about."

Luffred said he reached over to grab his uncle, but he was already gone.

"I mean it's like bing, bang, boom – and then I turned over," Luffred said. "I didn't actually see him lift up because it's like slow motion, but it happened fast."

Then he felt the spray.

People on the ride screamed.

Luffred froze.

When the ride ended, Luffred still had his hands in front of him.

He got out mechanically and crumbled to the ground in front of Hackemer's wheelchair.

Soon, his family was with him.

"My aunt just screamed," Luffred said. "I mean how can you put into words what just happened? How could you imagine what just happened? It's like that movie Final Destination where they fall out of the roller coaster. You hear of accidents on roller coasters but it was pretty gut-wrenching and shell-shocking."

When Luffred calmed down hours later, he wondered to himself why he hadn't stopped his uncle, but only for a moment.

"At first I was like, ‘What just happened?'" Luffred said. "I was a little bit mad. Like, why didn't I stop him, why didn't I say, ‘I don't think you'll be able to stay put on this ride.' But I wouldn't have been able to stop him anyway. He was pretty headstrong, and he was so happy to get on that ride. It's probably the happiest time he'd had in years."

This semester at UB, Luffred is focusing on healing – both himself and others. He says he wants to be a nurse and he hopes to help people appreciate the value of health and strength.

"I want to give back to the doctors and nurses who saved my life," Luffred said.

He continues to take inspiration from his uncle and from his no regrets approach to life.

When he returned home from Iraq, Hackemer had made a list of things he wanted to do. Riding a roller coaster was at the top, Luffred said.


Ashton appreciates the support from the UB community. But he requests that people be respectful of his privacy as he is here to study. If you need to contact him, please do so via email. Thank you.



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