A grand jury in Wyandotte County, Kansas has returned an indictment against waterpark and resort operator Schlitterbahn and one of its managers, charging them with “involuntary manslaughter, aggravated battery and reckless endangerment of a child” over the 2016 death-by-decapitation of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab on the world’s tallest water slide, the Kansas City Star reported.
The Verrückt water slide.Photo: AP
Per the Star, a 47-page indictment says company management including Schlitterbahn Vacation Village operations director Tyler Austin Miles recklessly ignored safety standards, warnings from engineers, and their own lack of experience when designing Verrückt, a nearly 52m water slide that sent riders up a second hill at roughly 110km/h.
The indictment accuses the company of building the slide to impress the producers of the Travel Channel’s Xtreme Waterparks, opening the ride before it was completed despite numerous warnings from people involved in its construction and then covering up the resulting injuries. This went on until Schwab’s raft went airborne on the ride’s hump in its second year of operations, sending him into a collision with a poorly-designed netting and metal brace system that cut off his head.
Two other people were severely injured during the incident. The netting and metal brace system, which the Star reported experts told Kansas Attorney General’s investigators was “obviously defective and ultimately lethal” and the indictment claimed showed “extreme disregard for human life,” can be clearly seen in the photos below.
As the Star noted, Miles is the only individual defendant in the indictment for allegedly covering up safety reports and neglecting repairs, but co-owner Jeff Henry and Verrückt designer John Schooley are mentioned numerous times throughout the document:
The indictment said investigators found no records that any dynamic engineering calculations had ever been performed on Verruckt. Henry and Schooley, it’s alleged, skipped fundamental design steps and relied “almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods.”
The indictment also cites passages from internal emails written by Henry.
“Time is of the essence. No time to die,” Henry wrote in a Dec. 14, 2012, email to Schooley. “I have to micro manage this. NOW. This is a designed product for TV, absolutely cannot be anything else. Speed is 100% required. A floor a day. Tough schedule.”
In a later email, the Star reported, Henry replied to a question on why the science behind Verrückt was not completed with, “I’m not quite sure yet. Many things, I think. There’s a whole bunch of factors that creeped in on this one that we just didn’t know about. Obviously things do fall faster than Newton said.”
In a 2014 interview with Gizmodo, Schooley said that he and Henry “were crazy enough to try anything” and had rebuilt the slide after initial testing determined “with the higher weight limits, we would fly the rafts off the top of the hump”:
“We decided to have a completely different shape of the hump, and we had to shorten up the bottom radiant turn because of the G forces involved. In two or three weeks, we took down two thirds of the slide, reconfigured it, and got it back up,” he said. After determining that their new design was probably non-lethal, Schooley and Henry gave it another spin. By July 2, the team had completed their 100th consecutive successful sandbag test, plus the two men’s tests as human guinea pigs. And now, finally, they’re just about ready to open for business.
“I thought it was mismanaged,” Erin Oberhauser, a former rider who said her strap came loose on the ride, told the Star. “That they didn’t have a proper amount of weight in the raft. You have kids working at a water park. They don’t understand. I don’t think they understand how dangerous it can be.”
Schwab’s family reached a $US20 ($26) million settlement with “several parties involved in the construction” of the slide, the Star added. If convicted on the involuntary manslaughter charge, Miles and the company could face a sentence of 31-136 months’ prison time and a $US300,000 ($389,761) fine.