Questions remain about death of 10-year-old boy on water slide
Caleb Thomas Schwab, killed Sunday afternoon while riding the world’s tallest water slide at Schlitterbahn Kansas City Water Park, was found dead with what police on Monday evening termed a “fatal neck injury.”
Numerous questions still remain over the death of 10-year-old Caleb, who is the second oldest son of Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab and Michele Schwab of Olathe.
Kansas City, Kan., police on Monday evening released a statement saying that when police and fire personnel arrived at the park about 2:30 p.m., the boy was found dead in the pool at the end of the water ride.
Caleb, police noted, had been in the ride’s three-person raft with two adult women who were unrelated to him. The women sustained minor facial injuries and were treated at area hospitals.
“The family will be in our thoughts,” the statement said. Their investigation continues.
One day after the tragic death, the family has been left in grief. Neighbors and friends are in shock, as are those who were at the park.
Leslie Castaneda of Kansas City, Kan., can’t get the aftermath image of Caleb’s death out of her head. She said she witnessed what she thought to be the boy’s crumpled shorts or bathing suit at the bottom of the 168-foot-tall Verrückt ride, blood on the white descending flume of the world’s tallest water slide.
“I’m really having a tough time with it. I really am,” said Casteneda, who came upon the scene inside Schlitterbahn shortly after it occurred. “I saw his (Caleb’s) brother. He was screaming.”
Many are left wondering how the events of Sunday came to pass.
In Wyandotte County, the medical examiner conducted an autopsy, but the office said it was not yet ready to release preliminary results.
The family’s friend and spokesman, the Rev. Clint Sprague, held a news conference Monday evening announcing that a funeral for Caleb is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at LifeMission Church, 16111 S. Lone Elm Road in Olathe. A GoFundMe fundraising web page for funeral and other expenses was set up and has exceeded its $15,000 goal.
“It’s just been amazing the people who have come together praying for them, encouraging them and supporting them,” said Sprague, the lead pastor at the church. “They feel it.”
Sprague said he has spent the last 24-plus hours with Scott and Michele Schwab and their three other children.
“As you can imagine, it’s been devastating,” Sprague said. “It’s been devastating at every level. You know, you leave church, you go to a water park to be with family and to enjoy. And then you hit tragedy. There is just no way to prepare for this.”
Sprague described Caleb as a boy who loved Jesus — and not just a “going to church” kind of love.
“He loved Jesus,” he said. “He loved to talk about Jesus. He loved to pray.”
Michele Schwab told Sprague that anytime someone had a need or something like this happened to someone else, Caleb was the one to say that they had to pray.
“Caleb was a 10-year-old child, but in many ways he was a man of God,” Sprague said. “He’s going to be missed for his energy, for his life, for his smile, for the way he lit up a room.”
Sprague said he didn’t have details about the accident that took Caleb’s life.
“What I can tell you is that this family is coming together and grieving together,” he said. “We are asking everybody to give us space to do that.”
The Schwabs have hired Michael Rader and Edward Robertson Jr. from the Leawood law firm Bartimus Frickleton Robertson. The firm said neither the family nor its lawyers would make public statements about the incident until an investigation was concluded.
Although the Verrückt remains closed, Schlitterbahn on Monday afternoon said the park would reopen Wednesday and that grief counselors were being provided at Schlitterbahn Kansas City for employees and guests.
Many of the details of the events of Sunday remain unclear. According to those close to the family, the Schwabs attended church Sunday morning and debated whether go to the water park, given the cool weather, early clouds and forecast for possible rain. When the sun came out, Scott and Michele Schwab took their four boys to the water park for a day in which admission was free to families of area elected officials.
Soon after arriving, Caleb and his brother Nathan, 12, set off into the park with friends. Scott and Michele Schwab tended to their two younger boys.
Kansas City, Kan., police are investigating the Caleb’s death as a criminal matter.
“It is a death investigation,” said Officer Cameron Morgan, a Police Department spokesman. “Every death is technically a criminal matter until we clear it or categorize it as an accident. We are still investigating it and trying to figure out what happened.”
Among the many questions yet to be answered:
▪ How exactly did Caleb die? Pending an investigation, Schlitterbahn has released no information about the death, including at what point Caleb was injured — whether it was at the top of the ride, along its descending path, or somewhere along the ride’s second and much lower rise and fall. Investigators on Sunday removed a section of the netting attached to the final descending portion of the ride just before the ride ends in a pool.
▪ Was he ejected from the raft, did he come loose from the raft or was he injured while still inside the craft? Police said responders found Caleb in the pool at the end of the ride, but no one knows how his body got there.
▪ Did the ride somehow fail or malfunction?
▪ Did the raft containing Caleb meet the required weight and/or height requirement? According to Schlitterbahn’s website, the ride holds two or three riders per raft with a required combined weight of at least 400 pounds. Riders have to be at least 54 inches tall.
▪ Was Caleb properly secured into the raft? Or did he somehow come loose or somehow unfasten his restraint? The rafts use a Velcro lap belt and a single shoulder restraint. The belts are made of heavy fabric, secured with Velcro.
Before opening to the public in 2014, Verrückt did not have netting covering the flume. Mike Taylor, a spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., said it insisted on adding the netting to the top.
“We raised that issue,” Taylor said Monday.
The sides of Verrückt aren’t tall, designed that way so riders can see out of the chute.
“I think they realized we need to put that extra safety precaution,” Taylor said. “The sides on that thing are really low.”
The design was changed so that netting is attached above the flume with a series of semicircular supports.
The Unified Government’s Development Review Committee examined plans for Verrückt before the attraction opened. That committee includes representatives from the the Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department, the Board of Public Utilities, the city’s building inspection and engineering departments, and the Public Health Department. The review process did not evaluate the how the ride worked or was supposed to operate, nor is there any state or local law that compels the city to carry out such an inspection.
Since 2014, Schlitterbahn has been sued three times in Kansas City, Kan., for personal injury claims, although none were related to the Verrückt water slide.
Linda Stomboly filed suit in 2014 after suffering injuries to her leg as she rode King Kaw, a 3,000-foot river ride where visitors travel on rafts. Schlitterbahn denied wrongdoing. The case was settled for undisclosed terms in the case in which Stomboly said she was injured after a collision with another rider in front of her.
The collision allegedly threw her from her raft. As she tried to get back on her raft, she fell over a waterfall on the ride and suffered spiral fractures to her leg. Her lawsuit contended that Schlitterbahn failed to test and determine the appropriate intervals for releasing visitors onto the ride, and that riders were not warned of potential dangers arising from collisions with other riders.
Schlitterbahn denied wrongdoing in its response to Stomboly’s lawsuit and charged that her negligence contributed to her injuries.
Stomboly sought $223,934 in damages in that case, a sum that included lost wages, past and future medical expenses, and non-economic damages. Schlitterbahn offered $20,000. The case later settled on terms that were not disclosed.
Frances Logan sued the water park the same year for injuries suffered on the same ride. Logan’s lawsuit said that her inner tube flipped over and that her left foot hit a concrete wall. Her lawsuit added that no lifeguards were on duty to assist her, leaving other patrons to pull her off the ride.
Schlitterbahn denied her claims, and the case settled last year.
Robert Boepple also sued Schlitterbahn in 2014 for injuries he suffered in 2012. Boepple contended that he injured his head, neck, arm and spine when he tripped over a protrusion on the Boogie Bahn ride. Schlitterbahn denied wrongdoing in that case, too.
Boepple sought $500,000 in damages in that case. The lawsuit settled in 2015.
Caleb’s death is not the first at a Schlitterbahn facility. In 2013, lifeguard Nico Benavides, 20, was killed at the company’s park on South Padre Island, Texas, when a mechanical door related to a wave generator slammed on his head.
Benavides was pronounced brain dead. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the park a half-dozen citations with penalties exceeding $96,000. By 2015, the park’s parent company had settled for $66,000.
In Texas, where Schlitterbahn runs four water parks, the company has reported 61 instances of injuries since 2011 to the Texas Department of Insurance. That department requires amusement parks to report injuries that require the attention of a licensed physician.
Schlitterbahn’s 61 injury reports at four parks are more than the 41 reported by Great Wolf Lodge’s location in Grapevine, Texas, but fewer than the 72 reported by Six Flags in Arlington, Texas.
When the Verrückt water slide opened at Schlitterbahn in 2014, the rules for riding included a minimum age of 14, a minimum height of 54 inches and a combined weight of all riders in the raft of between 400 and 550 pounds. Park officials told USA Today at the time, however, that the age requirement was being removed because the height requirement was deemed sufficient.
In the hours after the incident Sunday, Schlitterbahn removed references to the Verrückt from its Kansas City water park’s website. The company later tweeted that it had restored the page “for those who are interested in rider requirements.” In its statement Monday, the company referred readers to its Verrückt Fact Sheet.
Guinness World Records affirmed the Verrückt is the tallest water slide in the world at 168 feet, 7 inches. It surpassed the previous record holder, which was the Kilimanjaro water slide in Brazil at 163 feet, 9 inches. The Brazilian slide has higher walls on the chute and is not covered by a net. Participants lie on their backs without a raft.
The rest of the list can be seen here. A YouTube video summarizes 10 water park tragedies around the world.
Casteneda said the death in Kansas City, Kan., sent visitors at the park into disbelieving shock.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know happened,” she said. “There was a lot of looks of, ‘What’s going on?’ It was just a blur.”
The Star’s Robert A. Cronkleton and Matt Campbell contributed to this report.