Why is Verruckt still standing at Schlitterbahn?
Just before Thanksgiving last year, Schlitterbahn said it planned to tear down the Verruckt ride in Kansas City, Kan.
Nearly a year later, the 17-story water slide still peers over the hills of western Wyandotte County, a visible reminder of the death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab, who was killed by the slide on Aug. 7, 2016.
Chris Kamler, a Kansas City resident who works at the Cerner office campus near The Legends in KCK, said he sees it everyday outside his work window. At times on his drive into work, he takes a different route to avoid Verruckt.
“That’s your first thought in the morning,” Kamler said. “It’s just a drag.”
Schlitterbahn officials sounded a sense of exasperation that a court order still forbids them from tearing down the ill-fated structure.
“Unbelievably, we still don’t have a date as to when we will be allowed to take it down,” Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio said in an email to The Star.
An ongoing investigation by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt to determine whether criminal charges are warranted in Schwab’s death has forestalled any demolition.
“We are not sure why the AG is sitting on this so long,” said Mike Taylor, a spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan. “I know the Schlitterbahn folks have been ready to tear that thing down for a long time.”
The attorney general’s office and the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department remain tight lipped about the status of the investigation.
“The case is still being reviewed,” said Jennifer Montgomery, spokeswoman for Schmidt’s office. “No additional information is available at this time.”
The last official word on the investigation from Schmidt’s office came in May, when he announced that law enforcement needed more time to further investigate. That meant that Verruckt would remain standing but unused during Schlitterbahn’s 2017 summer season.
“The Schwabs have always maintained their desire to prevent a similar tragedy from happening to another family. Tearing down the slide seems to be best way to ensure history doesn't repeat itself,” said Mike Rader, an attorney who represents the Schwab family.
“It is my understanding the slide cannot be altered in any manner or removed until after the Attorney General for Kansas has concluded his investigation. We do not know the status of the criminal investigation.”
Kamler said he’s not sure what’s left to investigate or why the slide needs to stay up while the investigation continues.
“You’ve taken all the pictures you can take, you’ve taken all the measurements,” Kamler said. “I don’t necessarily see the need for it to stay up.”
Pat McInerney, a former U.S. Attorney who is now in private practice, said “investigations into tragedies like that can take a long time.
“I would suspect the Attorney General is having to look at whether there were indications ahead of the tragedy that people at either Schlitterbahn or the design company or whoever should have paid attention to.”
Verruckt opened in 2014 amid much fanfare for its status as the world’s tallest water slide.
Schwab, the son of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe, took the final ride on Verruckt with two other women on a day when elected officials and their families were allowed into the park without charge.
A death report recently obtained by The Star from the Wyandotte County Coroner’s Office is the only publicly available confirmation of the circumstances of Schwab’s death. Other investigative records remain off limits to the public as the investigation continues.
The coroner’s document says Schwab was riding in the front of the raft when it lifted into the air on its way up a hill that follows the ride’s initial descent. The report said Schwab died when his neck struck a brace that supported a netting system that was placed atop of the chute, resulting in his decapitation.
It remains a mystery about who insisted upon placing a netting system on top of the ride, and who designed the fatal addition to it.
A Star investigation into the incident found experts who questioned the wisdom of installing a netting system over a ride, heard from witnesses who said their raft had gone airborne as well and riders who said that a hook-and-loop seat belt system did not function well.
The coroner’s report confirmed that the seat belt had come undone.
“The front seat lap and shoulder belts were undone and the tip of part of one of the belts entrapped between the tubular sidewall and (the) floor of the boat,” the report reads.
The manufacturer of the water raft, Zebec of North America, joined several other defendants, including Schlitterbahn, in paying the Schwab family $20 million in civil settlements earlier this year.
The two women who rode behind Schwab and suffered injuries, also settled for undisclosed amounts.
Those women, Hannah Barnes and Matraca Baetz, had insisted on Schlitterbahn agreeing to tear down Verruckt before entertaining settlement talks.