Like thousands before them, Kelsey Friedrichsen and Josh Foster had come to ride the Verruckt.
The couple could see it loom over the flat eastern Kansas countryside.
Taller than Niagara Falls.
Named after the German word for “insane.”
The largest waterslide in the world.
It was a warm day and Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kan., was busy. But as Friedrichsen and Foster approached the slide Sunday afternoon, they began to sense something was wrong.
Amid an unusually large crowd near the slide was a woman with blood streaking down her face.
“We figured, maybe someone got thrown around on the ride or something,” Foster told KCTV5.
But then they saw a little boy, lying on the ground, not moving.
As people wept, a paramedic covered the child with a white sheet.
“That’s when it kicked in,” Foster said. “I started bawling.”
The boy was 10-year-old Caleb Schwab, the son of a state legislator. Police said the death appeared to be an accident. Park officials confirmed Schwab died while riding the Verruckt but did not say how.
According to local TV station KSHB, however, “more than one water park guest” said the harnesses on the ride were not working Sunday.
Details of the incident were still hazy Sunday night.
A Schlitterbahn spokeswoman promised “a full investigation” and said both the slide and the park had been shut until further notice.
“We honestly don’t know what’s happened,” Winter Prosapio told the Kansas City Star. “This is not something we’ve experienced [before].”
But this isn’t the first time there have been safety concerns over the slide. Before it opened two years ago, the Verruckt had to be partially torn down and redesigned. According to USA Today, the changes were made after rafts flew off the slide at high speeds during test rides.
“It’s dangerous, but it’s a safe dangerous now,” ride co-creator and Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry told the newspaper in July 2014. “Schlitterbahn is a family water park, but this isn’t a family ride. It’s for the thrill seekers of the world, people into extreme adventure.”
‘We will see him another day’
Friends and family members recalled Caleb as sweet-natured and fond of sports. A photo distributed by the Schwab family showed the freckled 10-year-old with a smile and a baseball bat slung over his shoulder.
Caleb’s father, Republican state Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe, Kan., and his mother. Michele, released a statement Sunday mourning the “sudden loss” of their son.
“Since the day he was born, he brought abundant joy to our family and all those he came in contact with,” the statement said. “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 Schwabs were at Schlitterbahn as part of “Elected Official Day.” The park was full of lawmakers and their families, who received free admission and lunch.
It was early afternoon when Caleb climbed the 264 steps to the top of the Verruckt.
Originally, the slide required riders to be at least 14 years old and 54 inches tall, but the age requirement was deemed unnecessary and eliminated, USA Today reported in 2014.
That meant Caleb was cleared to ride.
He climbed aboard a blue raft containing at least one, likely two other people. When a metal gate opened, he plummeted down the slide at roughly 60 miles per hour before hurtling up and over a second hill.
“Witnesses describe the boy going down the steep 168-foot drop of the world’s tallest water slide Sunday afternoon, then going airborne over the next hill, colliding with a safety net,” KSHB reported.
A section of netting on the far side of the second hill was removed by a fire crew after the incident, presumably to preserve evidence. The blue raft was also taken into custody.
KSHB reported that “more than one water park guest” said the harness on the ride was not working before the incident.
“A lady in front of me said that multiple times she rode the ride today, the Verruckt, and that the front harness did not work any of the times that she rode it,” Jessica Lundquist told the TV station.
Lundquist said she rushed toward the ride as soon as she heard about the accident. Her two 12-year-olds were aboard the ride.
“I freaked out. I ran full speed towards the slide, I was stopped and wasn’t allowed to go past,” she told Fox 4.
She saw “shell-shocked tears, moms crying.” Soon, she discovered that the child involved was not hers.
It was Caleb.
‘I can’t believe what I just saw’
Kelsey Friedrichsen and Josh Foster had registered to ride Verruckt minutes after Caleb. As they approached the slide, however, they saw an injured woman.
“She was bleeding,” Friedrichsen told KCTV. “There was a lot of blood coming from her face.”
The injured woman’s identity was unclear Sunday night. Park officials did not mention her.
Friedrichsen and Foster realized that the situation was even more serious when they saw Schwab’s body on the ground.
“First responders started covering it up with a white sheet,” Friedrichsen said.
The accident left other visitors shaken.
“About to spend the day relaxing in the pool,” Sierra Lairson had tweeted earlier several hours earlier.
“I literally saw a kid die at schlitterbahn today,” she wrote minutes after the accident. “I’m so freaked out.”
“God bless that kid’s family,” she continued. “I can’t believe what I just saw.”
More messages of support arrived after Caleb’s identity was released Sunday night.
“Our prayers are with the family of Rep. Scott Schwab today with the tragic and sudden loss of their young son,” tweeted Gov. Sam Brownback.
‘Nobody’s ever going to come out of the ride’
Jeff Henry was at a trade show when he decided he wanted to build the tallest, fastest waterslide in the world, according to CNN.
“The world’s largest slide had been in Brazil, and we couldn’t have that,” he told USA Today. “I’m from Texas. It was a matter of pride.”
Henry reportedly chose Kansas City because of its lax height restrictions.
But the Verruckt was easier to envision than to operate.
The slide was completed and certified the tallest by the Guinness Book of World Records in April of 2014, only for it to be immediately dismantled.
The “insane” ride was reportedly too true to its name.
“Test video shows rafts and sandbags ramping off the Hill and in some cases hitting and damaging the slide below,” USA Today reported. “Rumors of test riders going airborne circulated on social media, but only sandbags were sacrificed.”
At one point, speculation became so widespread that “testing was conducted after dark to avoid media helicopters that had been buzzing the park after hours,” the newspaper reported.
The problem was the hill. To prevent riders from going airborne, the hill was increased in height and the angle of the drop was softened to reduce speed, according to USA Today.
Height, weight and age restrictions were put in place to prevent accidents, although the age restriction was eventually withdrawn. According to Schlitterbahn’s website, each raft must have two or three riders weighing a combined 400 to 550 pounds, with no single rider over 300 pounds.
Safety nets were also installed around the entire ride.
“It’s nice to always know that nobody’s ever going to come out of the ride,” Henry told the Star.
Riders seemed to agree with his description of the huge slide as “safe dangerous.”
“That was the most amazing ride I’ve ever ridden,” Doug Flora, who snagged the first raft on VIP day, told the Star. “And it felt safe from beginning to end.”
“I’m pretty sure we had air,” said Corey Smith the next day, when the park officially opened. (A park official told the Star that the ride only felt that way, and the rafts do not go airborne.)
After Sunday’s accident, some locals pointed to the water slide’s early safety problems.
“You think your kids are safe, but they’re not,” Lundquist told KSHB.
“Just imagine, you come here to have fun, celebrate fun times,” she told Fox 4. “We came here for a birthday party. We are leaving with a death.”
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