One of area’s most shocking and tragic stories was the Aug. 7 death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab as he rode the Verrückt water slide at Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan.
Schwab died of what police originally described as a “fatal neck wound,” and later confirmed as a decapitation, as he and two others descended down the 17-story thrill ride that opened in 2014.
The tragic circumstances of Schwab’s death, the fact that it happened on a ride that had been the subject of worldwide hype and promotion, and the revelation that little outside oversight occurred during the construction and testing of Verrückt made it one of the most widely discussed stories in Kansas City in 2016.
The Kansas City, Kan. Police Department continues to investigate the circumstances that caused Schwab’s death. It’s widely believed that Schwab, the son of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe, came into contact with a netting system that was supported by metal beams that ran atop most of the ride.
Just before Thanksgiving, Schlitterbahn announced that it would tear Verrückt down. It was billed as the world’s tallest water slide, but experts questioned the safety of the ride in the aftermath of Schwab’s death while previous riders told The Star that they had either gone airborne or experienced problems with a passenger restraint system.
In Kansas, amusement park rides are loosely regulated. Gov. Sam Brownback said after Schwab’s death that he would be open to revisiting how the state inspects amusement park rides for safety.
The initial story of the Verrückt incident captured the details of the Sunday afternoon incident. More than 1 million readers visited the story on kansascity.com.
In the immediate aftermath of Schwab’s death, witnesses came forward to describe their observations of what happened or to report their own experiences of problems riding Verrückt. A spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., told The Star that local officials had raised the issue of adding a netting system to the ride. He later retracted those comments.
More Verrückt passengers spoke out about concerns they had with the ride, while amusement park experts questioned the design of Verrückt. One expert told The Star that rides that resemble roller coaster rides should take similar precautions, such as having the vehicle that transports riders be fixed to a rail device to keep it from going airborne.
A week after Schwab’s death, a Star examination of the circumstances leading up to the incident revealed how little stood in the way of Schlitterbahn’s big plans to construct the world’s tallest water slide, how it sought publicity for the attraction and how few questions about safety were raised along the way.
Investigators revealed that Schwab, weighing 73 pounds, was placed in front of the slide ahead of two women weighing 197 and 275 pounds, respectively. Physics and engineering experts questioned the wisdom of arranging passengers from lightest in front to heaviest in back, suggesting it could have contributed to the ride possibly going airborne.
Schlitterbahn has said little publicly about Schwab’s death. During Thanksgiving week, the company announced it would decommission the slide once a court gave it permission.
The Schwab family has also said little publicly about losing Caleb, but spoke to The Star in November about how players for the Kansas City Royals had welcomed the grieving family to Kauffman Stadium for a game and some time with the team’s stars.