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The making of Schlitterbahn’s Verrückt water slide: Too much, too fast?

How Schlitterbahn’s Verruckt was built in Wyandotte County

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
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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

Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry struck on the idea some time around 2012: His Texas company would build a water slide zipping riders from a height nobody had gone to before.

The notion looked particularly attractive because the Travel Channel wanted footage of the testing and opening to kick off its next season of “Xtreme Waterparks.”

The Verrückt, then, became a chance to turbocharge the prospects of Schlitterbahn in Kansas City, Kan., after its ho-hum launch a few years before. Not only would this super slide elevate the heights riders could zoom down, it would bring buzz to the park.

By early 2013, Henry began sharing his inspiration to make Wyandotte County the site of the world’s tallest water slide — a process largely controlled by Schlitterbahn with little interference from any government regulators.

The Verrückt opened a year later in all its 168-foot, heart-stopping glory.

A well-oiled hype machine attracted media from around the globe to Kansas City, Kan., for the July 2014 opening. Political leaders jumped in on the promotion. Mayor Mark Holland was one of the first to try the 17-story drop and its subsequent stomach-collapsing 50-foot hump.

For the next two years, Verrückt drew such large crowds that Schlitterbahn suggested that visitors make reservations ahead of time. The sky-piercing slide capped decades of success for Henry’s company. The company had custom-made spectacular rides in the past. This time it would push the envelope further.

Now following the death of 10-year-old Caleb Thomas Schwab on Aug. 7, an examination by The Kansas City Star of how the Verrückt rose from the ground shows how little stood in the path of an idea that appears, in hindsight, to have been dotted with warning signs.

Was the design of the ride too aggressive? Did it bake in too many hard-to-control factors? Did late-stage changes aimed at safety — namely the addition of netting supported by metal hoops just above where guests would sail at speeds reaching 70 miles per hour — pose added danger? And whose decision was it?

Was Verrückt too much, too fast?

An official investigation figures to take weeks, if not months, to complete. Schlitterbahn and others involved in building the slide have declined interview requests in the accident’s aftermath. Yet signs show that a slide that took its name from the German word for insane encountered few obstacles.

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

Ambitious plans

When the idea of a Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan., first surfaced in 2005, it seemed like another big victory for western Wyandotte County’s ongoing renaissance.

Kansas Speedway, Village West and Community America Ballpark had preceded Schlitterbahn’s announcement. Each was a hard-won development that local officials pursued following the unification of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., governments in 1997. Each of these developments would have a hand in transforming the area’s image from a declining community overrun by political patronage to a boom spot on the edge of the metro.

Early on, Schlitterbahn officials described a $1.2 billion investment with hundreds of hotel rooms, 100 cabins, “tree-house” lodging and hundreds of thousands of square feet of new retail alongside a state-of-the-art water park.

Schlitterbahn’s origins in Texas began humbly enough. Bob and Billye Henry started launching tourists on inner tubes into the Comal River between San Antonio and Austin during the Johnson administration as a way to draw visitors to a few dozen cabins they owned.

Soon enough, they channeled water from the Comal into their own small collection of rides in the 1970s, when the idea of a water park was still novel.

Later, they’d hand the reins off to their children, Gary, Jeff and Jana. That next generation expanded the operation, plumbing five dazzling water parks from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Kansas City, Kan. The family-owned business earned a reputation as among the very best at slippery amusements. Schlitterbahn became a perennial runaway winner of trade journal Amusement Today’s “best water park.”

Gary Henry became the CEO. Jana Faber would run the retail operation. Jeff Henry, according to several published accounts in recent years, became a heralded ride designer.

Texas Monthly magazine credited a then-16-year-old Jeff Henry with coming up with a water-filled dip at the bottom of a slide so riders wouldn’t slam into the pool too hard. The industry now refers to the innovation as a “water brake.”

Along with collaborator John Schooley, Jeff Henry holds eight patents, many in use well beyond the Schlitterbahn empire.

Among his innovations is a patent for moving tube riders not down a chute, but using a gush of water to push them uphill. That notion of using water jets to gain elevation would also fit into a key part of Verrückt’s design.

But before Verrückt became an idea in Wyandotte County, Schlitterbahn stumbled. It put on a soft opening in 2009, a year later than planned, with eight of its 13 rides operating in the middle of acres of undeveloped dirt.

It opened for a full season in 2010, with Schlitterbahn saying it had invested $180 million into the site, not quite what was originally envisioned. The project came amid a global recession that wiped out the prospect of adding as much retail as the Henrys had once contemplated.

A catalyst to generate excitement about Verrückt came to its inventors late in 2012.

Schooley, Henry’s design partner, told tech site Gizmodo that the two men devised a plan for Verrückt at a 2012 water park trade show.

“Basically,” he said, “we were crazy enough to try anything.”

Henry told a writer for the ESPN website Grantland that his vision for Verrückt was a spur-of-the-moment innovation at the trade show in October 2012, prompted by a chance for publicity.

“Some Travel Channel guys walked up to me,” he recalled, “and they said, ‘Hey, Jeff, we’re going to be doing this new show and we want to know what you’re doing new.’

“I said, ‘What is it that would get me to, like, No. 1 on your show?’

“They said, ‘Well, if it was the biggest, tallest, and fastest, that would do it.’

“I said, ‘I’m building the biggest, tallest, fastest.’

“And they said, ‘What?’

“I said, ‘It’s a speed blaster.’ Well, it didn’t exist. The concept didn’t exist. I just made it up on the spot. And then I came back and told my brother and sister. I said, ‘Mmmm, I just announced this major new ride.’

Just four months after the trade show, the Verrückt proposal arrived in Wyandotte County. Schlitterbahn’s biggest regulatory hurdle would be a zoning rule. It turned out to be a minor barrier.

Schlitterbahn applied on Jan. 22, 2013, for an exemption from the Unified Government’s building codes that limited how tall a structure it could build.

Zoning codes prohibited buildings taller than 120 feet; Schlitterbahn at the time applied for a 148-foot water slide.

The request would be handled by UG’s Board of Zoning Appeals, an agency led by political appointees.

UG staff recommended approval of the project. Staffers wrote that they did not foresee public health or safety issues.

Robin Richardson, UG’s planning director, said that safety evaluation was done in the context of the project’s impact on neighboring property owners — but not on whether it was safe for passengers.

“It seemed like they had done their due diligence to me,” Richardson said.

The staff report said if the variance was denied, Schlitterbahn would not build the slide.

“The point of being an unnecessary hardship is debatable because on one hand, the applicant (Schlitterbahn) could simply build a shorter attraction,” the staff report reads. “But on the other hand, Schlitterbahn is in the business of providing thrill rides and a denial could hurt their ability to go after that portion of the market.”

According to minutes of the April 1, 2013, Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, the main concern was whether Verrückt would be seen from neighboring properties.

In the end, members of the board voted unanimously to approve the exception. It was the final word. The elected UG Commission didn’t need to vote on the variance.

Verrückt went through several inspections.

County records show that private companies, including Alpha-Omega Geotech of Kansas City, Kan., were hired to examine the slide for steel reinforcements, footings, bolts — all things of a structural nature.

None of the records in Verrückt’s building inspection file suggests questions about whether the slide would be safe to ride.

“We don’t have anybody on staff who would be an expert on water rides,” said UG spokesman Mike Taylor. “It would probably be silly to do so because they would be sitting around the majority of the year with nothing to do.”

“The experts on this are really Schlitterbahn,” Richardson said.

Henry and Schooley widely talked about how they designed Verrückt. Neither is listed as a licensed architect or engineer in either Texas or Kansas. The project’s architect was Mark Stuart, a Schlitterbahn employee, according to a building permit. Stuart is a licensed architect in Kansas and Texas.

The same permit lists BSE Structural Engineers of Lenexa as the project engineer and Steve Busey, one of the firm’s principals, as the contact. Busey’s profile on the company website says he “has developed a client base in the building, aquatic, amusement and water slide markets.” In an email on Monday, Busey said “our role on the Verrückt project … was to provide structural engineering services for the ride structures. We did not have a role in designing the ride itself.”

Schlitterbahn listed Henry & Sons Construction, a company Henry owns, as the general contractor for Verrückt.

Building publicity

Less than a month after getting its zoning variance, Schlitterbahn got a building permit, and construction started soon after.

The company sought publicity early and often. It put out a press release on April 21, 2014, announcing that it would reveal the height of the structure, which it said had been a closely held secret, later that week.

On April 25, the Henry family, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and other dignitaries showed up at Verrückt along with officials from the Guinness Book of World Records, who would proclaim that the slide was indeed the tallest in the world.

“I always set out to break all the records,” Jeff Henry told USA Today at the time. “I want to be the first at the bar to buy a drink and I want to be the first to meet a pretty girl and I want to be the first at everything. I want to have the biggest, the tallest, and the fastest rides at my parks.”

He and his record-breaking ride became the stars of the first episode of the third season of Travel Channel’s “Xtreme Waterparks.”

A source who was on site during testing said the crews tweaking the ride worked long days in 2014 ahead of the deadline to make the Travel Channel show.

“That’s what was really breathing down their necks,” said the source, who spoke to The Star on the condition of anonymity.

That source described how Verrückt was modified several times as testing produced undesirable outcomes.

Having settled on their concept of a harrowing drop followed by an over-the-hump dash, they built a half-scale, 84-foot version. They tested it with sandbag-laden rafts, which sometimes toppled off the flume, and with humans.

The first full-sized version of the slide that was tested was essentially a basic slide that would have sent riders on essentially a free fall for 17 stories, and then a 55-foot hump afterward.

Test rafts on that version continually flew off the slide. That was captured on film and aired publicly. “Tipped over and killed every sandbag in there,” Henry says on one video clip.

Adjustments elongated the slide to reduce the incline of the hump. In the first version, that rise ran so steep that controlling the boats proved difficult with all the speed and momentum from the initial drop.

That change didn’t improve matters.

The source said that test operators next cut out foam blocks from one of the test rafts and attached them to the sides of another raft. The thinking was that friction on the sides of the slide would reduce the speed enough on the initial descent to help the boat stay on track, which it did in subsequent test runs.

Next, the slide was modified to include what the source called a “squeeze zone” — railings attached to both sides of the slide going about a third of the way down on the initial descent. That cut speeds enough to improve the performance of the raft during testing.

The netting was installed shortly thereafter, according to The Star’s source.

Mark Hanlon, a licensed mechanical engineer who was a certified inspector of amusement attractions in California, told The Star that the netting posed its own hazard because a rider moving at high speeds could easily lose a limb if they hit it.

The provenance of the netting — who ordered it, who designed it and who installed it — remains a mystery. In two separate phone calls with The Star on Monday, UG spokesman Taylor said UG raised the issue of installing the netting.

By Thursday, after being pressed about details of who made the call for the netting and who designed it, Taylor withdrew those statements. He said he misspoke.

“Since it is really part of the way the ride operates (and we don’t inspect or approve the actual mechanics of an amusement ride) we were not involved in that,” Taylor wrote in an email to The Star. Taylor’s email also pointed out that the Schlitterbahn’s Master Blaster ride at its New Braunfels, Texas, location has similar netting. “The UG did not suggest they add the netting.”

No record of those final inspections exists publicly. Schlitterbahn would not discuss the testing of the ride or any of The Star’s questions about the project.

When the ride was complete, Schooley and Henry were the first to take the plunge. “It was a pretty exciting ride,” Schooley told Gizmodo. “I was terrified.”

Decisions such as adding netting and complications with testing caused delays in the park’s opening date. The park pushed back the ride’s debut three times, eventually opening it to the public on July 10, 2014.

The 2014 “Xtreme Waterslides” premiered with its hourlong special featuring Verrückt. That episode is no longer available on video streaming services and cannot be accessed on the Travel Channel’s website.

Big splash

The July 10, 2014, opening was a grand affair.

USA Today, ESPN, “The Today Show” and “NBC Nightly News” joined The Star and virtually all other local news outlets in touting the slide. Garmin teamed with Schlitterbahn to use the ride as a short-term cross-promotion for its VIRB action camera and Verrückt.

Holland, UG’s mayor, offered himself up for one of the early rides on Verrückt.

“It’s terrifying and horrible and terrific,” he said.

For most of two years, the slide seemed to work with few apparent problems. A lifeguard who worked there until last year told The Star that he occasionally saw a raft go airborne but had never seen or heard of issues with straps. The lifeguard, who shared experiences on the condition of anonymity, said passengers were read safety briefings, weighed and then loaded into a raft in order of lightest to heaviest.

However, visitors have told The Star over the last week that they experienced problems on Verrückt, mainly poorly secured restraints and rafts going airborne.

Regulations of rides

Federal officials don’t regulate water slides. State officials, ultimately guided by the elected politicians who were invited for a special day at the park when disaster struck, run on rules that allowed the slide to open in 2014 without a government oversight of its fundamental design.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., largely evaluated Verrückt by whether it met local zoning and building codes.

Rather, the ultimate safety of the slide mostly began and ended with those inspired to build it.

Ride inspectors interviewed by The Star were reluctant to speak publicly for fear of alienating clients in the industry. They said insurers typically require a ride be erected, operated and maintained to a manufacturer’s specifications.

Most parks go to the Canadian design firms ProSlide and WhiteWater West to make their water slides. But in this case, as with nearly all with the New Braunfels, Texas-based company, Schlitterbahn was the manufacturer.

A Philadelphia attorney who specializes in lawsuits against amusement parks said that he suspected problems with the slide when it opened. From years of studying what goes wrong on rides, Jeffrey Reiff said he’s come to believe water slides pose particular problems. With a roller coaster, the car is the vehicle and engineers have greater control over its safety. With a water slide, the riders become widely varying and unpredictable vehicles shooting down a flume.

The Verrückt, he said, posed particular dangers because it put so many variables into play on a soaring, high-speed dash over water.

Weight and distribution of the mass of riders would be different on every journey down the slide. The inflation of the rafts, Reiff said, was bound to fluctuate depending on the attentiveness of workers and changing temperatures. Water jets that ensure a raft clears the Verrückt’s signature hump — during testing, riders sometimes slid backward into the slide’s gully — would behave differently if water pressure rose or fell. (Schlitterbahn’s publicity material says the “ride required advanced sensor and nozzle technology.”) Reiff said wind could also be a factor.

“You have a lot of uncontrolled variables that require constant supervision,” he said. “Lots of things can go wrong. … When you’re going at those speeds, anything going wrong becomes catastrophic.”

Aftermath

A state that had largely sat out of any overview of Verrückt’s safety now finds itself under great pressure to sort out what happened.

Last Sunday’s death seems to have stoked the Kansas Department of Labor’s interest in Verrückt.

The Kansas Department of Labor, the agency that oversees amusement park rides, never inspected the Verrückt. But Brownback said Friday he’s open to discussion of more state regulation of amusement rides. (Missouri’s law allows for state regulators to check on amusement park rides, but specifically exempts water slides from state safety checks.)

Schlitterbahn’s insurer had previously checked out the water park.

Haas & Wilkerson Risk Management sent an inspector on June 7 to have a look. Chet Smith, a loss control representative for the insurance broker, wrote in a letter obtained by The Star through an open-records request that all rides inspected that day, including Verrückt, passed underwriting and statutory muster.

“Please be advised that this survey reflects conditions observed or found at the time of inspections only, and does not certify safety or integrity of the rides and attractions, physical operations, or management practices at any time in the future,” Smith’s letter to Schlitterbahn reads. “Nor does the survey certify the structural integrity of any building, structure or public area observed.”

In a statement, Haas & Wilkerson said “insurance inspections cannot certify the engineering of the ride.”

Terri Sanchez, director of the KDOL, sent a letter on Aug. 9 to Schlitterbahn’s attorney requesting seven sets of documents:

▪ Certifications of its inspector’s qualifications.

▪ A current certificate of inspection.

▪ Maintenance and inspection records.

▪ Results of nondestructive testing.

▪ The manufacturer’s operational manual.

▪ The manufacturer’s testing recommendations.

▪ The manufacturer’s inspection guidelines.

Sanchez wanted those records by 3 p.m. Aug. 10, lest Schlitterbahn violate the Kansas Amusement Ride Act.

Richard Merker, a Wallace Saunders attorney representing Schlitterbahn, wrote back the following day, suggesting that KDOL officials come to the water park for an inspection in lieu of “producing the hundreds of pages of documents requested in your letter.”

By Friday, the KDOL confirmed it had audited those records. In a letter to Schlitterbahn, Sanchez added, “(T)his is a records audit and does not certify the safety or integrity of the amusement rides themselves.”

The Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.

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