The Star’s coverage of the Verrückt tragedy earns investigative journalism award

The science behind Schlitterbahn’s Verrückt

Schlitterbahn’s tallest water slide is guided by energy, acceleration and the laws of physics.
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Schlitterbahn’s tallest water slide is guided by energy, acceleration and the laws of physics.

A nonprofit dedicated to advancing investigative journalism awarded The Kansas City Star a top honor for its coverage following the death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab on a Kansas water slide last summer.

Investigative Reporters & Editors recognized The Star in its “investigations triggered by breaking news” category for 2016.

Caleb died while riding Verrückt, billed as the world’s tallest water slide, at Schlitterbahn waterpark in Kansas City, Kan.

A team of Star reporters and editors delved into state regulations of amusement park rides, finding that government officials had few safety discussions about Verrückt before it opened in 2014. The Star also found that the design phase may have been rushed and late-stage safety features — such as netting supported by metal hoops around the ride’s first rise, where some riders said the raft was prone to go airborne — may have exacerbated the danger designers were trying to guard against.

The owner of the amusement park announced it would permanently shut down the ride in November. And Kansas legislators are now pursuing new amusement park ride regulations.

What has become clearer since the tragic death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab is that from nearly the moment the Verruckt was proposed in Wyandotte County, its path to completion was all but assured with almost no outside officials casting a critica

IRE judges commended The Star’s aggressive team of reporters and editors, writing they “dove deep on the construction and oversight of the world’s tallest water slide. Their reporting revealed a lack of state regulation over amusement park rides and little outside review for safety that was putting the public at risk. The reporters also found other riders who experienced trouble on the ride — and had alerted staff to the malfunctions. Following their work, the owner of the amusement park permanently shut down the ride.”

Finalists in the category included a Star Tribune (Minnesota) investigation of the Philando Castile shooting and a CBC News investigation into Canada’s most accident-prone railway crossings.

Other publications and groups receiving IRE awards in 2016:

▪ The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Süddeutsche Zeitung, McClatchy, Miami Herald, Fusion, Swedish Television and more than 100 other media partners, for the “Panama Papers,” an investigation exposing offshore financial dealings of the globe’s most prominent figures.

▪ The Indianapolis Star, for its nine-month investigation that found more than 350 gymnasts had alleged sexual abuse over two decades and that USA Gymnastics had failed to protect athletes and had dismissed their allegations as hearsay.

▪ The Houston Chronicle, for its probe into Texas state officials’ setting a quota to limit the number of students who could receive special education services.