KANSAS CITY, Mo. – At least two people who rode in the last year on the same Kansas waterslide where a 10-year-old boy was killed say Velcro shoulder straps came loose during the raft ride featuring a 17-story drop.
It's unclear whether the straps on "Verruckt" — German for "insane" — played any role in Sunday's death of Caleb Schwab, a Kansas lawmaker's son. Police and Schlitterbahn Waterpark have yet to explain how Caleb sustained a fatal neck injury on the 168-foot-tall ride, which the park said Tuesday would be closed for the remainder of the season.
On the 2-year-old waterslide certified by Guinness World Records as the world's tallest, 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.
Riders are harnessed in with two nylon seatbelt-like straps — one that crosses the rider's lap, the other stretching diagonally across the shoulder. Each strap is held in place by long Velcro strips.
At least two people since have come forward, saying the shoulder straps either snapped or popped off during their time on Verruckt.
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.
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.
Each rider on the Verruckt must be at least 54 inches tall, and the group's weight is limited to a total of 400 to 550 pounds. Authorities haven't released information about Caleb's height or the combined weight of his group of riders, who included two women who were unrelated to him and sustained minor facial injuries.
According to rules sent to the media in 2014, riders had to be at least 14 years old, but that requirement is no longer listed on the park's website.
Officer Cameron Morgan, a police spokesman, said no police report about Sunday's incident was available. He said Tuesday that police were investigating because a death was involved and they want to ensure no crime was committed, but he noted that such accidents are usually handled as civil cases.
"It's being investigated as a criminal case but we are not saying something criminal happened," Morgan said.
Caleb's parents — Republican state Rep. Scott Schwab and his wife, Michele — have requested privacy and have not spoken publicly since the death of Caleb, whose funeral is Friday.
Verruckt's 2014 opening repeatedly was delayed, though the operators didn't explain why. Two media sneak preview days in 2014 were canceled because of problems with a conveyor system that hauls 100-pound rafts to the top of the slide.
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.
Kansas statutes governing amusement rides don't specifically mention waterslides. State law leaves it to the Kansas Department of Labor to adopt rules and regulations relating to certification and inspection of rides, adding that a permanent amusement ride must be scrutinized at least once a year by "a qualified inspector" licensed by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
Regulations adopted by the department in May 2010 require only that the owners of permanent amusement rides retain records for them for the state's possible inspection, but only for a single year. The regulation says amusement rides shall be "randomly selected" quarterly by the department for an audit of its records, though a permanent ride shall be subject to no more than two audits within six months.
Documents released Tuesday by the state department showed that in June 2012, a records audit found that the park was not maintaining records of testing for current and previous years. The report said that instead of such testing, "visual inspections are conducted annually and daily." There was no record of a state response, and the audit was marked "pass."
There were also no indications of further records audits, and department officials did not immediately answer questions about why that was so.
The state's Labor Department said it has requested documentation from Schlitterbahn "to ensure all safety requirements have been followed." Department officials didn't immediately provide additional details.
Schlitterbahn has been sued at least three times — all in 2014 — in Kansas City, Kansas, though none of those legal actions involved the waterslide. Two of those lawsuits involved mishaps on the 3,000-foot King Kaw inner tube ride in man-made rapids, and all of the cases were settled out of court for undisclosed sums.