World

Son of U.S. politician killed on world's tallest waterslide in Kansas

A Kansas thrill ride billed as the world's tallest waterslide remained off-limits Monday as authorities pressed to figure out how a state lawmaker's 10-year-old son was killed on a day the park honoured elected officials and their families.

Caleb Thomas Schwab, son of a state representative, dies of a neck injury on 51-metre tall Verruckt

A June 2016 photo provided by David Strickland shows Caleb Thomas Schwab, the son of Scott Schwab, a Kansas state lawmaker from Olathe. Caleb died Sunday on the waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kan. (David Strickland via Associated Press)

A Kansas thrill ride billed as the world's tallest waterslide remained off-limits Monday as authorities pressed to figure out how a state lawmaker's 10-year-old son was killed on a day the park honoured elected officials and their families.

Details remained murky about how Caleb Thomas Schwab died Sunday on the 51-metre-high "Verruckt" — German for "insane" — that since its debut two years ago has been the top draw at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kan.

In a statement Monday afternoon, Schlitterbahn said it was "deeply and intensely saddened for the Schwab family and all who were impacted by the tragic accident." The park was tentatively scheduled to reopen Wednesday, but the slide remains closed.

Officer Cameron Morgan, a police spokesman, said investigators were treating Caleb's death as a "civil matter" rather than a criminal one and deferred additional questions to the park.

Monday evening, Kansas City, Kan., police said the boy died of a neck injury. The two other women in the raft with him sustained minor facial injuries. 

Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio declined an interview request Monday, but told reporters a day earlier that Caleb had been at the park with family members, adding that "we honestly don't know what's happened."

Leslie Castaneda, who was at Schlitterbahn on Sunday, told the Kansas Star that she saw Caleb's crumpled shorts or bathing suit at the bottom of the ride, along with blood on the slide's white descending flume.

"I'm really having a tough time with it. I really am," said Castaneda, of Kansas City, Kan. "I saw his [Caleb's] brother. He was screaming."

On the waterslide certified by Guinness World Records as the world's tallest, riders sit in multi-person rafts during "the ultimate in waterslide thrills," subjecting "adventure seekers" to a "jaw dropping" 17-storey drop, the park's website says. Passengers then are "blasted back up a second massive hill and then sent down yet another gut-wrenching 50 foot drop," the website adds.

Age requirement unclear

Each rider must be at least 54 inches tall, and the group's weight is limited to a total of 400 to 550 pounds. Authorities didn't release information about Caleb's height or the combined weight of his group of riders.

Caleb's parents — Republican state Representative Scott Schwab and his, wife, Michele — have requested privacy as the family grieves, saying in a statement Sunday that "since the day he was born, [Caleb] brought abundant joy to our family and all those he came in contact with."

"As we try to mend our home with him no longer with us, we are comforted knowing he believed in our Savior Jesus, and they are forever together now. We will see him another day," the statement added.

Authorities initially said the victim was 12 years old, but Clint Sprague, a pastor acting as the family's spokesman, said Caleb was 10 and is among the couple's four sons. According to rules sent to the media in 2014, riders had to be at least 14 years old, but that requirement is no longer listed on the park's website.

Verruckt's 2014 opening repeatedly was delayed, though the operators didn't explain why. Two media sneak preview days in 2014 were cancelled because of problems with a conveyor system that hauls 100-pound rafts to the top of the slide.

In a news article linked to the news release announcing a 2014 delay, Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry told USA Today that he and senior designer John Schooley had based their calculations when designing the slide on roller-coasters, but that didn't translate well to a waterslide like Verruckt.

Early tests revealed flaw

In early tests, rafts carrying sandbags flew off the slide, prompting engineers to tear down half of the ride and reconfigure some angles at a cost of $1 million US, Henry said.

A promotional video for a show about building the slide includes footage of two men riding a raft down a half-size test model and going slightly airborne as it crests the top of the first big hill.

A general view shows the Verruckt waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City on July 8, 2014 before its scheduled opening on July 10. The waterslide is the world's tallest, according to the Guinness World Records. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

The Unified Government of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County said it does not inspect the operations of such rides and is responsible only for ensuring they've adhered to local building codes.

Without specifically mentioning water slides, Kansas statutes define an "amusement ride" as any mechanical or electrical conveyance "for the purpose of giving its passengers amusement, pleasure, thrills or excitement." Such rides, by statute, commonly are Ferris wheels, carousels, parachute towers, bungee jumps and roller-coasters.

State law leaves it to the Kansas Department of Labour to adopt rules and regulations relating to certification and inspection of rides, adding that a permanent amusement ride must be scrutinized by "a qualified inspector" at least every 12 months. Kansas's Labour Department didn't return messages Monday.

Prosapio said Sunday the park's rides are inspected daily and by an "outside party" before the start of each season.

Kansas state Senator Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, said that although state law doesn't specifically address waterslides, it's clear they "would fall into that category." He called any potential legislative response to Sunday's tragedy premature, saying the investigation should be given time to play out.

now