Several passengers who rode the waterslide where a 10-year-old boy was decapitated Sunday said that the ride’s Velcro-like straps would come loose, and that at least one lifeguard claimed they were just for show.
It's unclear whether the straps on "Verruckt" - German for "insane" - played any role in the death of Caleb Schwab, a Kansas lawmaker's son. Police and the Schlitterbahn WaterPark have yet to explain exactly how Caleb died on the 168-foot-tall ride, which the park said Tuesday would be closed for the remainder of the season.
Erica Conrad, a season-pass holder, told "Fox & Friends" on Wednesday she witnessed her friend’s close call last summer when his straps busted off during the ride. “We noticed my friend’s harness was completely off and we overheard him yelling, you know, my harness is off and it had been off from the beginning of the ride,” she said Wednesday morning.
When Conrad herself rode the slide, she expressed safety concerns about the straps to a water park lifeguard. “The lifeguard looked at me and assured me that it’s really not a big deal,” she told Fox News. “The Velcro straps are just to make you feel safer. They're not technically really to hold you in.”
A person familiar with the investigation confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday the boy was decapitated.
Paul Oberhauser told local television station KCTV his shoulder restraint "busted loose" on his Verruckt raft July 26. The Nebraska man said he "just held on," and a video shot by his wife shows the strap loose at the ride's end. Oberhauser said he reported the matter to park workers.
Another rider, Kenneth Conrad, told WDAF-TV that during his trip down the waterslide last year with a friend, the friend's shoulder strap came "completely off." Conrad's wife snapped a photo at the end of the ride showing the strap missing, and Conrad didn't file a complaint with the park.
The park's spokeswoman didn't return messages Tuesday from The Associated Press seeking comment on the claims. In a statement, she said "a limited portion" of the park will reopen at midday Wednesday.
Riders sit in multi-person rafts that begin with the steep drop, followed by a surge up a second hill before a 50-foot descent to a finishing pool. Along the way, riders clutch ropes along the inside of the raft.
In early tests, rafts carrying sandbags flew off the slide, prompting engineers to tear down half of the ride and reconfigure some angles. A promotional video 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.
Caleb was in a raft with two adults who were not related to him when he was killed on the slide, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s tallest. The other two were treated for facial injuries.
Police were investigating the death as a criminal case although police spokesman Cameron Morgan said Tuesday that designation did not mean they suspect foul play.
Jon Rust, a professor of textile engineering at North Carolina State University, said the material used on the straps, commonly called hook and loop, isn't designed to keep a person in the seat. It also can get old and degrade with use.
"It's got to be used in a safe manner, and that doesn't include stopping someone's fall or preventing someone's ejection," Rust said.
Ken Martin, a Richmond, Virginia-based amusement park safety consultant, questioned whether the straps were appropriate for what he called "nothing more than a roller coaster with water."
Although he has not seen or ridden Verruckt, Martin said a more solid restraint system that fits over the body - similar to those used in roller coasters - may have been better.
"I think we have a serious issue with the restraint system. Period,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.