Government & Politics

Verrückt water slide safety rarely discussed by KCK officials, according to records obtained by The Star

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

Kansas City, Kan., officials rarely discussed the safety of the Verrückt water slide before it opened, The Star has learned.

The Unified Government this week was asked whether there were any dicussions about safety of the slide beyond documents obtained by The Star through the Kansas Open Records Act — mostly emails dating back to 2013.

“There was no discussion among staff about the risk or safety of the ride itself,” Unified Government spokesman Mike Taylor told The Star in an email Wednesday. He said said staffers inspected the ride and found it met building codes.

Kansas law does not require local governments to evaluate amusement parks for rider safety, but does allow them to if they wish, so long as it doesn’t conflict with state law.

In the aftermath of the Aug. 7 death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab on Verrückt, Gov. Sam Brownback said within days of the incident that he was open to revisiting state regulations on amusement park rides.

Mayor Mark Holland has not yet decided whether the Unified Government would pursue its own safety regulatory scheme.

“With an investigation into the accident still under way, and with the Legislature indicating it may take up the state’s role of regulating amusement rides, I believe it would be prudent for us, on the local level, to wait for these processes to play out,” Holland said in a statement Wednesday to The Star. “There is still a lot that we don’t know, and I would like more information before offering solutions.”

If the Unified Government decides to adopt such a scheme, or had before Verrückt opened, it would have been an extraordinary step. Municipal governments typically don’t have the staff equipped with the expertise in evaluating amusement ride safety. Kansas City, Mo., for example, sends health department inspectors to scrutinize food handling at Worlds of Fun. And the city inspects the structure of the ride. But Kansas City, Mo., staff doesn’t inspect for ride safety, leaving that role instead for state regulators, according to city spokesman Chris Hernandez.

The Missouri Department of Public Safety requires an annual inspection by a state-approved inspector, and also carries out spot checks of amusement rides. The federal government does not regulate fixed amusement park rides like those at Worlds of Fun and Schlitterbahn.

Most of the records obtained by The Star last week show the Unified Government discussing and coordinating promotion and grand opening events for an attraction that many expected would renew interest in Schlitterbahn Vacation Village in western Wyandotte County. Verrückt’s record-breaking height was seen as a potential boon for tourism in the area.

Few of the written communications discuss safety. One email exchange shows that a reporter quizzed the Unified Government communication staff about the local government’s oversight of the slide after its anticipated opening date was delayed for a third time in 2014.

“We are only verifying they built what they said they would build and landscape/site cleanup...nothing safety related,” wrote Unified Government planning director Robin Richardson in a June 25, 2014, email.

Verrückt took three riders in a raft, untethered to the slide itself, down a sharp, 17-story descent at speeds reaching 70 mph before climbing a subsequent 50-foot hump and eventually coming to rest in a pool of water.

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

Pre-opening promotion of Verrückt, a German word for “crazy” or “insane,” played off the apparent riskiness of the attraction. Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry once said to USA Today that Verrückt was “dangerous, but it’s a safe dangerous now,” after the ride had to be reconfigured following a testing period. He added that while Schlitterbahn was a park meant for families, Verrückt was geared for thrill seekers. Verrückt’s testing period produced video clips showing rafts soaring off the side of the ride’s 168-foot flume.

The exact circumstances of Caleb Schwab’s death remain unclear as the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department continues its investigation, alongside independent investigations by attorneys for Caleb’s family and two other women who were injured on the ride.

But the investigation appears to be focused, in part, on a netting system installed before the ride’s opening. A cargo net, supported by metal beams, covers most of the length of the ride, ostensibly to keep riders from falling out. Sections of the netting were removed following Caleb’s death.

Kansas regulations require amusement park rides to have a third party inspect them once a year and preserve records of inspections if the state decides to conduct an audit. Kansas hadn’t inspected Verrückt since it opened in 2014, The Star reported previously.

Schlitterbahn reopened three days after Caleb’s death, but Verrückt remains closed. It’s unclear whether it will open again.

Unified Government records support earlier reporting by The Star that described how Texas water park company Schlitterbahn pursued an entry in the record books and the fame that came along with it when it decided to built a 168-foot water slide, and how little stood in its way.

Planning for a big event

Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry told a national magazine that the idea for Verrückt came to him late in 2012, describing it as a spur-of-the-moment revelation to earn a spot in a Travel Channel series showcasing thrill-seeking amusement park rides.

It was only a few months later when the plan surfaced before Unified Government officials. Schlitterbahn required few public approvals in order to start work on the towering slide. The only substantive vote was taken by the Board of Zoning Appeals, a body of appointed officials whose business attracts little public attention. The board granted an exception for Verrückt, a structure taller than what zoning codes allowed.

The ride earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records on April 25, 2014, as the tallest water slide anywhere; that was a publicity-boosting event that teased the planned opening the following month. Schlitterbahn, however delayed the opening three times.

Schlitterbahn postponed the ride’s first opening date, slated for May 23, 2014, saying that the ride needed more testing.

A second opening date, June 5, 2014, was also delayed.

The emails obtained by The Star indicate that Unified Government officials were told that delays had to do with polishing up a public relations campaign.

In a May 29, 2014, email from Bill Hurrelbrink — a spokesman Mayor Holland at the time — to fellow staffers, he wrote:

“Just received a call from my (point of contact) at Schlitterbahn and there is another delay in the opening of Verruckt. The slide is functional in its current configuration, however they are hoping now to capitalize on a number of PR campaigns that are working, including the travel channel documentary that is scheduled for the end of this month, and a yet to be announced deal with Garmin.”

The third delay postponed a June 29, 2014, opening. Publicly, the company said on June 25 that a conveyor belt designed to retreive rafts from the bottom of the ride and send them back to the top wasn’t working.

Emails showed there were other details of Verrückt that the company hadn’t yet squared away with local officials. The Unified Government was unhappy with a wood-framed contraption, draped with fabric netting, that enclosed parts of the stairway guiding riders to the top of the slide.

On June 26, 2014, the day after the third delay was announced, Unified Government officials rejected the stairway enclosure. They complained that wood wasn’t supposed to be used with a steel structure. And they thought the work looked shoddy.

“This was not in the original plan and from my understanding, the insurance company may be the one requiring it,” reads a June 26, 2014, email from Greg Talkin, director of the Unified Government Neighborhood Resource Center, to other Unified Government administrators.

“The construction type of the tower is 2-B (metal and concrete construction) which limits use of wood. Not really our issue but above and beyond the wood use, this looks bad and unprofessional.”

At the same time Unified Government planners and engineers grappled with design details of Verrückt, the Unified Government’s communications team fielded questions from the media about the latest delay in opening the ride.

On June 25, 2014, Associated Press reporter Bill Draper emailed spokesman Edwin Birch, wondering about the local oversight and requirements before allowing Verrückt to open.

Birch forward the query to Talkin and others.

“The structure for this ride was permitted and the construction is being inspected by third parties and reports submitted to us,” Talkin responded in an email. “However, we are only inspecting for structure stability and not the aspects of riders safety. There are few if any rules as you stated regulating amusement parks and riders safety in the State of Kansas.”

After the ride opened

Verrückt eventually opened on July 10, 2014. Its popularity caused Schlitterbahn officials to ask that would-be thrill-seekers make an appointment ahead of time.

The attraction seemed to encounter few problems. Angela Markley, a Unified Government commissioner, sent a July 14, 2014, Yahoo! News article via email about Verrückt around to fellow commissioners. The story’s headline read: “World’s Tallest Waterslide: Why You Don’t Fall Off.”

Following news of Caleb Schwab’s death, however, riders have told The Star about concerns they had after experiencing Verrückt. They reported instances of rafts going airborne as well as hook-and-loop straps meant to keep riders in the rafts not properly functioning.

Caleb was decapitated, police said. The two women suffered extensive facial injuries. They have not spoken publicly about the incident.

Shortly after Schwab’s death,Unified Government assistant county administrator Gordon Criswell sent out an emergency notification by email to UG employees and elected leaders.

“[A]round 3 PM this afternoon, a 12 year old child was fatally killed at the Verruckt Water Slide,” his message reads. “Police and Fire are on the scene and have initiated their investigation of this tragic accident. This is NOT PUBLIC INFORMATION!”

Criswell’s inital message may explain early press reports that identified the victim as a 12-year-old child and not a 10-year-old Schwab.

It wasn’t the only discrepancy in the Unified Government’s response to Caleb’s death.

Unified Government spokesman Taylor told The Star following the incident that the Unified Government had raised with Schlitterbahn the issue of installing safety netting on top of the slide. County Administrator Doug Bach saw reporting of that claim and asked Taylor in an email where he got that information, given that Bach had understood that the Unified Government played no such role. Taylor later said he misspoke.

Unanswered questions

The emails contained no information about other questions swirling around Caleb’s death. What circumstances on that fateful ride led to his death? Had anyone pressed their concerns about the safety of the side? What did Schlitterbahn officials know about complaints made by Verrückt riders, who told The Star and other media of accounts of their rafts going airborne and their support straps coming loose?

Cameron Morgan, a spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department, said there were no updates in the Verrückt investigation and that investigators did not expect one for another month or so.

Michael Rader, an attorney representing Caleb’s family, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

The records obtained by The Star do reveal isolated instances of concern by some Unified Government employees about the ride, as well as examples of gallows humor that, with hindsight, take on a dark tone.

One Unified Government attorney suggested that Rupert Murdoch, the controversial Australian media magnate, be volunteered for an initial ride down Verrückt. Another email dated June 25, 2014, under the subject line “Death Ride” expressed concern about the ride.

“I think when you build something this high you are setting yourselves up for TROUBLE!!!!!!” the message reads.

And yet another asked fellow Unified Government employees about who would volunteer for an early trip down Verrückt. One responded that she couldn’t swim.

“Swim, heck, the fall will probably kill ya,” his response reads.

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