GOWANDA, NY (WKBW) - He survived a roadside bomb in Iraq, his heart stopped twice on the battlefield and he lost both of his legs.
Sergeant James Hackemer returned home just a few months ago hoping to enjoy life, and that's exactly what he was doing when he fell to his death last Friday after being thrown from the 'Ride of Steel', the 200 foot high main attraction at Darien Lake Amusement Park.
"He had a zest for life and he did believe in living it to the fullest," said Hackemer's sister Paula Norley. "I know when this happened, he was having a great time."
The Iraq War veteran and double amputee fought back from the brink of death and learned to live life without legs, which his family says gave him a new appreciation for life and strengthened his faith in God.
The youngest of six and father of two, Hackemer was with his family Friday at the amusement park, which was something he had wanted to do for a long time.
"We're trying not to feel guilty for taking him to the park that he wanted to go so badly to with us," said Norley, who was at the park with Hackemer and his family when the accident happened.
As for the incident itself, police and park officials believe it was just that. A tragic accident.
"As far as we can tell right now it was nothing mechanical-wise as far as the ride that would have caused this accident," said Sergeant Greg Walker of the Genesee County Sheriff's Department.
"He wanted to get on the roller coaster. He did," said Norley. "They let him and they let handicapped on and it's not an unusual occurrence at all. It was just a tragic accident."
The 'Ride of Steel' and the surrounding area will remain closed while the Department of Labor and law enforcement continue their investigation.
As friends and the community mourn the loss of a hometown hero who overcame so much in the face of adversity, Sgt. James Hackemer's family reminds us to celebrate his life, because that's what he would have wanted.
Hackemer's sister put it like this:
"He wouldn't want you to be sad, because the experiences he had in the military, with what he went through, he understands the meaning of life. He understands to live life to the fullest, don't have any regrets, don't second guess yourself. Just press on. Do your best. And that's just who he he was and he wouldn't want us to be sad all the time thinking of what has happened."
Sgt. Hackemer's family say they plan to have a memorial at the family home sometime this week. They also told us that Sgt. Hackemer will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, right next to the soldier that was with him in the vehicle when the roadside bomb exploded in Iraq in 2008.
A date has not yet been set for the funeral service.