Government & Politics

After death on Verrückt water slide in Kansas, new bill would add regulations

Long after the world’s tallest water slide has disappeared from Kansas City, Kan., its legacy could include new regulations for amusement park rides in the state.

Ten-year-old Caleb Schwab died in August while riding Verrückt, a 17-story water slide at the Schlitterbahn Water Park. His father, Olathe Republican Rep. Scott Schwab, is the House speaker pro tem.

In the weeks after Caleb’s death, some lawmakers began to raise concerns about the state’s laws on amusement park rides. A bill introduced this week would require more state oversight and impose tougher penalties for safety violations.

Under current law, inspections at parks like Schlitterbahn fall primarily to their owners and there is limited state oversight of the inspection process.

The new legislation, House Bill 2389, would require that licensed engineers, or people with a background in amusement ride inspection, inspect amusement park rides in the state. It is scheduled for two days of hearings next week.

The bill’s sponsor, Abilene Republican Rep. John Barker, said Thursday that Kansas “had some very weak safeguards.”

“We started looking at statute, and we saw we were weak,” he said. “It’s like a tune-up on your vehicle. It’s been there for many, many years and we’ve not revisited that. So we’re kind of doing a tune-up on the existing statute and changing certain parts of it.”

Verrückt opened amid great fanfare in July 2014.

But an investigation by The Star last August described early warning signs about the 168-foot-high ride. Even in the face of design and safety problems, Verrückt’s path to completion was all but assured, with almost no outside officials casting a critical eye on the project, The Star found.

Records released by the state in August showed that the water slide passed a private inspection in June 2016. A state audit after Caleb’s death also found that the park was following state laws.

But before Caleb’s death, Verrückt had not been inspected by the Kansas Department of Labor, the agency tasked with overseeing amusement park rides in Kansas.

Officials with Schlitterbahn said late last year that Verrückt, which has been closed since Caleb’s death, will be demolished.

Winter Prosapio, spokeswoman for Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts, said Thursday that the company is waiting for court clearance to officially take the ride down.

“It is not our choice to leave it up,” Prosapio said.

She said the company was aware of the legislation introduced in Topeka.

“I think the Legislature is doing what they feel is right and that’s exactly what a legislature should be doing,” Prosapio said.

Barker’s bill would require that the inspections be paid for by the insurance company that issues the liability insurance policy that covers the ride. His bill also calls for ride operators to do daily inspections.

After hearing about the bill and the insurance inspection requirement, a Philadelphia lawyer with a focus on amusement park litigation said he thought the bill was “a step in the right direction because you have another set of eyes looking at it.”

“It’s inevitable that they have to do something,” Jeffrey Reiff said. The amusement park industry, he said, needs “as much oversight as possible.”

Under the proposal, amusement rides that are found to violate state law could be fined no more than $1,000 for any violation. But each day a violation continues would be seen as a different offense.

Reiff emphasized that he’d like to see legislation that has stiffer fines than the $1,000 in Barker’s bill.

“These rides are inherently dangerous when they’re not maintained or inspected,” Reiff said. “There’s a lot that can go wrong.”

Gov. Sam Brownback said he would follow Schwab’s lead when it comes to Schlitterbahn-related legislation.

“That was a terrible thing that happened and ... we’re seeing they followed the law at that point in time,” Brownback said. “But I’m going to talk a lot to Scott Schwab.”

Schwab’s chief of staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said lawmakers “definitely” will be looking at what other states have done with amusement park regulations. The Legislature, he said, has “a lot of interest to review what we do in Kansas and compare it to our neighboring states.”

Any issue that deals with Schlitterbahn could also be emotional for lawmakers who have served with Schwab.

Some leaders, including Brownback, attended Caleb’s funeral last year.

“We always encourage folks to try to remove emotion and listen to the facts,” Ryckman said about the bill. “But it’s very difficult to do that. We’re also realists. On any issue it’s hard to remove your emotion. ... We’re human beings and this is an emotional issue.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw