Avoiding an Amusement Park Nightmare

In the wake of a boy's tragic waterside death, concern grows

Parents across the country remain on alert after the tragedy of a 10-year-old’s death on a water slide in Kansas City’s Schlitterbahn Water Park. Visits to water parks are a standard summer activity for hundreds of thousands of Americans — and with several more weeks left in the summer, many worry about their own safety.

Caleb Schwab, son of Kansas state representative Scott Schwab, suffered a fatal neck injury on a giant 168-foot-tall water slide called the Verruckt, according to multiple reports. (Verruckt means “insane” in German.)

“A family’s defenses are down — they are just trying to enjoy some time together,” said one mom.

Witnesses at the park recalled a “horrific scene” and the “panic” that erupted moments after the tragedy.

The Verruckt is one of the top attractions of Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kansas, and is promoted by the park as the world’s tallest water slide. Yet on Tuesday afternoon, just two days after the tragedy, KCTV reported that at least two water park visitors reported loose straps on the ride. Paul Oberhauser of Nebraska told the station the safety restraints on his raft weren’t working properly when he rode it on July 26.

His shoulder strap “busted loose” during the ride and he “just held on,” he said.

The Kansas City Star reported that the popular water slide had not been inspected by the state since it opened two years ago, according to government records. Responsibility for inspecting rides in the Schlitterbahn Water Park rests primarily with its owners, not any state or federal agency, according to The Star. Schlitterbahn officials inspect the ride every day, they said, and a certified inspector checks it at least once a year.

Park visitor Esteban Castaneda told ABC News after the tragedy Sunday that he first heard a “boom” on the water slide.

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He saw a raft come through, and “immediately after the raft … you see a body,” he said. Castenada also said he saw two women sitting in the back of the raft with blood on them. Castaneda said he started running toward the slide. He heard a lifeguard yelling and “a boy screaming hysterically.”

“It didn’t really kick in until we were walking away,” one observer told KCTV. “We had to walk by the family. They were all crying, and I saw what seemed like a little brother just bawling. That’s when it kicked in, and I started bawling.”

Parents everywhere are disturbed and upset by the story.

“Honestly, I have been so upset — I feel the same way I felt when the alligator took the little boy in Disney,” said a mother of three in Malden, Massachusetts. “It is beyond tragic. A family’s defenses are down — they are just trying to enjoy time together. My kids love these rides and I just watch, praying.”

The association for America’s amusement parks also weighed in on the events.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Tips for Waterpark Safety” source=””]You’ll be outside in the heat, so dress accordingly.|Wear sunscreen. Put on before leaving home; reapply every 80 minutes if you’ve been in the water.|Drink plenty of water; avoid caffeinated sodas.|Keep an eye on your kids, even if there is a lifeguard on duty.|Know the four “toos.” Don’t get too tired, too cold, too far from safety, or too exposed to sun.|Wear a life vest at all times.|Don’t run around the pool. Walk.|Know how to swim. Each family member should know the basics before going in.|Keep young children in shallow areas. Be aware of different areas with varying water depth levels.[/lz_bulleted_list]

“It is with great sorrow that the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) learned of the incident in Kansas City,” the organization told LifeZette in an email. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of everyone impacted by the tragic event.”

It continued, “The safety of our guests is our industry’s No. 1 priority. We estimate that more than 85 million people safely enjoy water parks in the United States each year and incidents like this are extremely rare … IAAPA encourages all guests to strictly follow all park-posted instructions or rider safety guidelines.”

While the signage may urge caution, the parks themselves tout the spine-tingling experience that kids in particular enjoy. The park’s website claims the ride is the “ultimate in water slide thrills,” subjecting “adventure seekers” to a “jaw-dropping” 17-story decline.

“Parents need to know who inspects rides, and how often,” said one Massachusetts dad whose kids frequent amusement parks. “It’s boring to think about in the moment, but look how important it actually is.”

Related: Coolest and Smartest Summer Fun

The 2014 opening of the 168-foot-high Verruckt was delayed several times, according to The Star — something park management said at the time was “routine tweaking.” The rafts were re-designed for three people instead of four, and netting around the chute was added. Officials said testing took longer than expected; they also mentioned mechanical issues with the conveyor belt that delivers the rafts to the top of the thrill ride. Each state is responsible for its own amusement park safety protocols.

Just as parents were reeling from the water slide tragedy, three girls were hurt after falling from a Ferris wheel at a county fair in eastern Tennessee Monday, according to Greenville police.

“Parents need to know who inspects rides — and how often,” said one Massachusetts dad whose kids frequent amusement parks.

Greenville Police Capt. Tim Davis said a basket holding the girls reportedly overturned on a Greene County Fair ride and the girls were dumped out, according to CNN. They fell 35 to 45 feet and were taken to the Johnson City Medical Center. All were alert and talking. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has been called in, CNN affiliate WATE reported.

“I don’t like amusement parks, as much as they dazzle us with the latest rides,” said one Maryland mom of two. “I was on a mechanical swing with my daughter once, and I have never felt so trapped. Every sound of the gears shifting made me jump, and I looked down at the man running it, who was busy flirting with some girl and not paying attention,” she told LifeZette. “If my daughter hadn’t sung to me the whole way through, I would have passed out.”

Back in the heartland, the Schwab family is mourning their son. Their pastor Clint Sprague said young Caleb Schwab loved baseball, basketball, and his church. “Caleb was a 10-year-old child, but in many ways he was a man of God,” Sprague said, as CBS News reported. A memorial service will be held Friday afternoon.

The boy’s father, Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab, thanked the community for its outpouring of support for his son. “Since the day he was born, he brought abundant joy to our family and all those he came in contact with,” he said.

meet the author

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor for LifeZette.