In a quest to be the record holder for the world’s tallest waterslide, investigators say, Schlitterbahn Waterpark of Kansas City rushed to build a dangerous and structurally complicated ride, ignored glaring safety red flags and replaced mathematical calculations with “crude trial-and-error methods.”
The string of negligence, according to a recently unsealed indictment, resulted in the 2016 death of a 10-year-old boy and more than a dozen injuries. Caleb Schwab, son of Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab, was decapitated while riding the nearly 170-foot-tall Verrückt, a German word that means “crazy” or “insane.” On Friday, a year and a half after the boy’s death, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office announced criminal charges against the company and one of its former employees.
Schlitterbahn and Tyler Austin Miles, former director of operations, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and several counts of aggravated battery, aggravated endangering a child and interference with law enforcement. Investigators say the company knew the waterslide was unsafe and could result in injuries and deaths, but still rushed to open it to the public. Perhaps more disturbing is the allegation that several injuries, from neck pain to concussion, had already occurred before Caleb’s death. Still, investigators allege, Schlitterbahn and Miles kept the ride open to the public — and even hid reports of those injuries and other alarming safety problems from law enforcement officers who were investigating the boy’s death.
Spokeswoman Winter Prosapio denied that the company and Miles withheld or altered evidence. Caleb’s death, she said, was the result of an accident and not of a crime.
“The indictment uses quoted statements from a reality TV show that was scripted for dramatic effect that in no way reflects the design and construction of the ride,” Prosapio said in a statement. “The safety of our Schlitterbahn guests and employees has been at the forefront of our culture throughout our 40 years of operation. Many of us rode Verrückt regularly, as did our children and grandchildren.
“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. We stand by our team and will fight these charges,” she added.
Miles’s attorney, Tricia Bath, said her client did not knowingly obstruct the police investigation and Miles, himself, had ridden the slide several times, even scheduling for his wife to ride it on the day Schwab died. She added that the indictment was based on speculation.
“This indictment is based upon Grand Jury proceedings, which are conducted in secret. While neither we nor the public have had an opportunity to see transcripts of Grand Jury witness testimony, the Indictment is littered with references to evidence that is not legal,” Bath said in an emailed statement.
“What we know is that Tyler is innocent, which is why he insisted, at his first court appearance, that we set the matter for jury trial. We look forward to the opportunity to challenge the evidence, in a public forum, and prove Tyler’s innocence,” she added.
Prosapio said Miles left the company in September.
The 47-page indictment, which details evidence obtained from emails, memos, blueprints, videos, photos and eyewitness accounts, paints a starkly different — and disturbing — image of a company that disregarded people’s safety, all in the pursuit of breaking a world record.
The Verrückt, a hybrid roller-coaster and waterslide ride, was the brainchild of Jeff Henry, who co-owns the company with his siblings. Investigators say Henry decided to build the ride in a “spur-of-the-moment bid to impress producers of Travel Channel’s Xtreme Waterparks series.” He and a longtime friend and business partner, John Schooley, were in charge of designing the ride and making the necessary calculations, even though neither of them had any credentials in mathematics, physics or engineering, the indictment says.
The entire slide is covered with a net suspended by metal hoops. The ride begins with a nearly vertical drop. Rafts carrying riders then ascend about 50 feet above the ground. But instead of sliding back down, the rafts go airborne — a major design flaw that investigators say the company had known about, tried to fix unsuccessfully, and eventually ignored.
From the ride’s grand opening on July 10, 2014, to Caleb’s death on Aug. 7, 2016, 13 people were injured largely because the rafts went airborne, causing some riders to hit the net and the suspended metal hoops enclosing the slide. Investigators say Caleb was decapitated after the raft collided with the hoops. Two women suffered bone fractures and laceration that day.
“The presence of the overhead netting and support hoops speaks volumes about the designers’ extreme disregard for the value of human life,” the indictment says, adding that it violates international standards prohibiting any obstruction in the riders’ path.
“Henry and Schooley did the opposite; they installed metal bars directly across the known flight path,” the indictment says. The two men were not charged individually.
The indictment also cites comments from Henry suggesting he was well aware of the ride’s dangers.
“[Verrückt] could hurt me, it could kill me, it is a seriously dangerous piece of equipment today because there are things that we don’t know about it,” Henry said, according to the indictment. “Every day we learn more. I’ve seen what this one has done to the crash dummies and to the boats we sent down it … It’s complex, it’s fast, it’s mean. If we mess up, it could be the end. I could die going down this ride.”
Still, investigators say, Henry pushed for the entire project — from design to testing — to be done in just seven months. For a ride as ambitious as Verrückt, a team of engineers would have needed three to six months just to create a prototype. But investigators say engineers were never directly involved, and Henry and his team completed a prototype within 36 days.
Investigators also say Henry and Schooley hired an engineering firm to conduct tests a week before grand opening. But the test results, which showed that rafts carrying a weight of 400 to 550 pounds would likely go airborne, were ignored.
Designers also had initially agreed to impose an age limit of 14, but that restriction was thrown out the window on the eve of the grand opening, investigators say.
Schlitterbahn is a family-owned company based in New Braunfels, Tex. It has locations in three other Texas cities, as well as Kansas City, Kan. In 2014, Guinness World Records named Verrückt the tallest waterslide.
Miles turned himself in to the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office on Friday. He was released on the same day after posting a $50,000 bond, the Kansas City Star reported. The newspaper reported last year that Caleb’s family had received a $20 million settlement from the companies involved in the boy’s death.
This article, originally published on March 24, has been updated.