It’s been nearly two years since 10-year-old Caleb Schwab rode the infamous Verrückt waterslide, the tallest in the world, at the Kansas City Schlitterbahn Waterpark, only to be decapitated on the way down.
His death sparked a lengthy, in-depth critical look at Schlitterbahn parks, which has since led Kansas inspectors to discover that the waterpark suffered from several violations of park regulations. And as detailed in a lengthy and terrifying new deep-dive into Schlitterbahn published last week by Texas Monthly, Schwab’s death on the Verrückt waterslide was not an accident but the result of a series of careless, dangerous mistakes put in place by Schlitterbahn. Mistakes which would lead Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry and Verruckt designer John Schooley to be charged with second-degree murder in March, 2018.
In his story “Schlitterbahn’s Tragic Slide,” reporter Skip Hollandsworth outlines the origin of Schlitterbahn, which was first opened by accountant Bob Henry in the late 1970s in New Braunfels, Texas, as a scrappy little waterpark soon filled with his son Jeff Henry’s ride designs. The park continued to grow and expand into new locations, all of which contained Henry’s continually daring rides. But Henry had absolutely no qualifications to design these rides, a reality that ultimately led to Verrückt’s downfall:
He never got a conventional education beyond high school and never formally studied physics or engineering. And that never worried the people around him. “That would be like someone being concerned that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a college degree,” his brother told me. “The people that have a spark of genius don’t necessarily need college. Plus, Jeff always surrounded himself with other knowledgeable people who were able to do the numbers work that he wasn’t inclined to do.”
The Texas Monthly story paints Henry as a man obsessed with creating bigger, faster, and more dangerous rides. The only reason Verrückt was realized was because two producers for the show Xtreme Waterparks approached Henry and his collaborator John Schooley in 2012 to see if they had anything crazy in the works and Henry blurted out the idea for the new slide. Not only did the ride reportedly not work properly on open day (a raft leapt off the track in the same way Schwab’s eventually would, touching the netting at the top intended to keep passengers from flying out, which Henry denies) but after opening Verrückt garnered a reputation among employees for being too dangerous (a former lifeguard said nobody would volunteer to ride it even though lifeguards were required to test the rides each day before opening.)
The bombshell, for me, in Hollandsworth’s meticulous reporting is the discovery that water parks in the US are not closely regulated. And while Kansas law allows a water park like Schlitterbahn to self-inspect themselves rather than hire outside regulators, that’s far from being a Kansas-specific rule:
Although the federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority to set safety standards for such products as baby cribs and bicycles, it has no authority to regulate water parks. That responsibility lies entirely with the states. Some states have agencies that inspect water parks; others rely on the parks’ own insurance companies to do inspections. Texas law, for instance, says that a park must obtain a $1 million liability policy for each of its rides and must have all rides inspected once a year by an inspector hired by the insurance company. But there is nothing in the law that requires the inspector to have any particular certifications. Nor does the law require an inspector to evaluate the safety of such factors as the ride’s speed or the geometric angle of its slide path.
Read the full story here. I’m never riding a water slide again!