You wouldn’t expect that a story about a kid being decapitated on a waterslide could get any more horrific, but as per usual the USA has delivered well above its remit in the horror stakes. According to a new court indictment and reporting by the Kansas City Star, the story is far more complex and a whole lot darker.
Quick recap, for those who have forgotten: back in 2016, 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was killed riding the Verrückt waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Vacation Village waterpark in Kansas. He was decapitated when the raft he was riding flew into the air over one of the ride’s humps, catching his neck on a metal hoop that supported a netting system on top of the construction. Two women were severely injured in the collision.
His parents were paid a $27 million settlement and the story disappeared from international headlines, but a new indictment against Tyler Austin Miles, director of operations at Schlitterbahn, alleges that the company absolutely knew Verrückt was dangerous, and went out of their way to keep people in the dark about the dangers of the slide.
“This child’s death and the rapidly growing list of injuries were foreseeable and expected outcomes,” the indictment said. “Verrückt’s designers and operators knew that Verruckt posed a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death or severe bodily harm.”
The full indictment, which can be read here, alleges that two people were centrally responsible for the design of Verruckt: park co-owner Jeff Henry and lead designer John Schooley. Neither man had any engineering credentials relevant to constructing a waterslide – which, as you might imagine, is actually a pretty complex undertaking. Investigators found that there was no evidence that the company had invested any time in what is called ‘dynamic engineering’, which is the process by which designers work out crucial ride elements like speed, velocity, weight, gravitational force, and so on. Instead, they moved straight onto structural engineering – i.e. how do we get this thing actually built?
Whereas a regular project of this nature would require three to six months of design calculations involving at least two highly-experienced engineers, investigators found that a prototype for Verrückt was built and was being crudely tested within 36 days of Henry hatching the original idea.
Incredibly, the indictment alleges that the decision to build Verrückt was a spur-of-the-moment decision intended to impress producers of a show called Xtreme Waterparks, which honestly seems like a piss-poor reason to do anything. Let alone something which requires precise engineering calculations to ensure no one dies. In one email Henry wrote to Schooley, who reported directly to him, he describes Verrückt as a product “built for TV” and that “speed is 100% required.”
This excerpt from the indictment is really the crux of these myriad design issues:
Verrückt suffered from a long list of dangerous design flaws; however, the most obvious and potentially lethal flaw was that Verrückt’s design guaranteed that rafts would occasionally go airborne in a manner that could severely injure or kill the occupants.
Reasonably large design flaw, that. One particularly bizarre element of the accusations is Henry’s repeated assertions through email and other communications that he was in an “arms race’ with other waterpark operators, frequently bragging that he would have the “tallest ride in the world”. He even claimed that he could disregard industry safety standards because his achievements would “redefine” those standards.
A consultant reportedly told Henry and Schooley that a minimum age of 16 should be set for the ride, but just prior to the grand opening they decided to do away with age limits altogether, using stickers to cover up the existing warning labels.
Tyler Austin Miles is specifically indicted because of the way he allegedly dealt with incident reports before and after Schwab’s death. According to the indictment, he destroyed and altered witness statements relating to 11 injuries sustained by riders on Verrückt – mostly involving concussions and neck injuries – and worked to intervene with the investigation process related to the death of Caleb Schwab.
Schlitterbarn say they will contest the indictments vigorously.
“We have faith in the justice system and are confident that when we finally have an opportunity to defend ourselves, it will be clear that this was an accident,” spokesperson Winter Prosapio said. “We stand by our team and will fight these charges.”
Grim. Again, the whole indictment is worth a read, and is a shining example of where that kind of hubris leads you.Image: Getty Images