Sliding Toward Disaster

The Verrückt slide. Photo by Adele Chen (CC BY-SA 2.0).

On August 7, 2016, 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was decapitated on a water slide at Schlitterbahn, a water park in Kansas City, Kansas. Not just any slide: the world’s tallest water slide.

At 168 feet 7 inches tall, Verrückt, which means “insane” in German, was taller than Niagara Falls. Three riders inside a rubber raft would plummet down a nearly vertical seventeen-story drop at speeds reaching up to 68 miles per hour. The moment they reached the bottom, they would shoot up a 55-foot-tall incline—the equivalent of a five-story building—before racing down one last steep slope, finally coming to a stop in a long, water-filled runout.

Shouldn’t someone have been making sure Verrückt was safe? Sure: the park itself. In his Texas Monthly investigation into the incident and the slide’s creator –who’s since been indicted on second-degree murder charges — Skip Hollandsworth learns that water parks are something of a safety no-man’s land.

Although the federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority to set safety standards for such products as baby cribs and bicycles, it has no authority to regulate water parks. That responsibility lies entirely with the states. Some states have agencies that inspect water parks; others rely on the parks’ own insurance companies to do inspections. Texas law, for instance, says that a park must obtain a $1 million liability policy for each of its rides and must have all rides inspected once a year by an inspector hired by the insurance company. But there is nothing in the law that requires the inspector to have any particular certifications. Nor does the law require an inspector to evaluate the safety of such factors as the ride’s speed or the geometric angle of its slide path. According to Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jerry Hagins, the inspector is charged only with making sure that the ride is in sound condition and meets the “manufacturer’s specifications.” In other words, a water park is allowed to police itself.

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