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The World’s Tallest Waterslide Was a Terrible, Tragic Idea

Aug 13, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Nathan Truesdell

At 169 feet tall, Verrückt was the tallest waterslide in the world. Riders plummeted down the nearly vertical 17-story chute—taller than Niagara Falls—at speeds up to 70 miles per hour. German for “insane,” Verrückt was designed to challenge the laws of physics. Visitors flocked to Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kansas, to experience its thrill.

That is, until August 7, 2016, when the raft that 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was riding went airborne and hit a metal pole supporting a safety net, resulting in his decapitation and instant death.

Nathan Truesdell, a filmmaker from nearby Missouri, heard about the devastating incident on the news. “My first thought was that it must have been a freak accident—what a horrible, horrible story,” Truesdell told me. “But once I took a closer look, I started to realize how complicated this story really was, and how this could have happened to anyone who went down that slide.”

The story, it turned out, was one of gross negligence, lax state regulations, and the consequences of hubris. Truesdell’s chilling short documentary The Water Slide, premiering on The Atlantic today, uses news and promotional footage to depict the ill-conceived project and its tragic fallout.

In 2012, the Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, together with the senior designer John Schooley, fast-tracked Verrückt’s construction to coincide with an appearance on a reality TV show about amusement parks. (They were also gunning for a Guinness World Record.) Although they had built rides before, neither Henry nor Schooley had a background in mechanical engineering. And according to state law, they didn’t need those credentials to deem their own ride safe—unlike in the neighboring state of Missouri, water parks in Kansas do not require inspections by a state agency.

As chance would have it, Schwab’s father was a Kansas state representative. On the day of Caleb’s accident, the Schwab family had been visiting the water park for Elected Official Day, an annual promotion from Schlitterbahn that offered free admission to Kansas elected officials and their families.

“There wasn't a lot of science or ride engineering involved in the testing and design,” Truesdell said. “They were sending sandbags down and basically hoping that they didn't fly off of the slide. The netting that ultimately ended up killing the child was added to prevent the rafts from flying off of the slide completely.”

In the film, Schooley speaks to a reporter after having tested the ride himself. “That was really exciting because we truly didn’t know whether we were going to survive it or not,” he says. “A ride might be scary, but you figure that they have it figured out. We didn’t know whether we had it figured out or not.”

Henry and Schooley were ultimately indicted on charges of aggravated battery, aggravated endangerment of a child, interference with law enforcement, and involuntary manslaughter. Henry faced a charge of second-degree murder. The state alleged that the two men had rushed forward with the ride’s construction without the technical expertise required to design a properly functioning waterslide, skipped “fundamental steps in the design process,” and relied “almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods” for safety testing.

According to court documents, a team of experts who inspected the ride after Caleb's death found “physical evidence that indicated that other rafts had gone airborne and collided with the overhead hoops and netting before the fatality.” What’s more, on July 3, 2014—one week before the ride’s grand opening—an engineering firm that was hired to perform accelerometer tests on Verrückt’s rafts issued a damning report that “guaranteed that rafts would occasionally go airborne in a manner that could severely injure or kill the occupants.” Other documents cited evidence of dozens of Schlitterbahn customers who had been injured on the ride. Schlitterbahn allegedly buried or downplayed these reports.

In February, a judge dismissed the charges against Henry and Schooley. The water park is now closed, and the slide has been demolished.

“We are good at sending thoughts and prayers,” Truesdell quipped.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.