A day of fun at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas turned into a day of horror on August 7, 2016, when 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was decapitated while riding the Verrückt waterslide.
In August 2016, 10-year-old Caleb Thomas Schwab eagerly lined up to ride the world’s tallest waterslide at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas. Designers named the slide Verrückt, German for “insane,” and it became the main attraction at the park. But Caleb’s ride would end in tragedy.
That day, Caleb boarded a three-person raft and made his way down the slide. Halfway down the slide, however, the force of the ride ejected Caleb from the raft and slingshotted him into the emergency netting. The 10-year-old hit a metal pole and was decapitated, dying instantly.
The investigation into Caleb Schwab’s death revealed disturbing facts about the construction of the ride, telling a story of negligence, culpability, and a terrifying lack of oversight in the country’s amusement park industry.
The Schwab Family’s Fateful Day At The Schlitterbahn Waterpark
Caleb Schwab was born on January 23, 2006, in Kansas. One of four boys, Caleb grew up in a very energetic home. He spent most of his time on the field, playing baseball for a local team called the Mudcats.
The Schwab house was fairly typical apart from the occupation of Caleb’s father, Scott. Scott Schwab served as a member of the Kansas House of Representatives from 2003 to 2019. Scott’s occupation is the reason why the Schwab family went to Schlitterbahn in the first place.
On August 7, 2016, Schlitterbahn Waterpark hosted “Elected Officials Day.” That day, elected officials like Scott Schwab and his family received free admission to the park.
Schlitterbahn was one of Kansas’s most popular waterparks. It was one of five Schlitterbahn waterparks in the country and featured 14 waterslides and two pools. Needless to say, the Schwab kids were ecstatic to go.
The Schwab family attended church that morning, packed up the car, and headed to the waterpark for a day of fun. Scott Schwab remembers how excited Caleb was to ride the world’s tallest slide. In fact, when they arrived, Caleb and his 12-year-old brother, Nathan, made a beeline for the ride.
According to ABC News, Scott Schwab reminded his sons that “brothers stick together.”
“Look at me. Brothers stick together,” he repeated.
“I know, Dad,” Caleb responded. That would be the last thing Caleb said to his father.
After the two brothers climbed the 264 stairs to the Verrückt, however, ride operators split them up in order to meet weight requirements for the waterslide rafts. The brothers separated, with Nathan taking the plunge first.
After an exhilarating ride, Nathan waited impatiently at the bottom of the slide for his brother. Back at the top, Caleb Schwab boarded the front of a three-person raft. Behind him sat two sisters, unrelated to the Schwab family. Together, they took the fatal plunge.
The Tragic Incident On The World’s Tallest Waterslide
Away from both boys, Scott Schwab and his wife, Michelle, were lounging and tending to their younger children when Nathan ran to them.
“[Nathan] was screaming, ‘He flew from the Verrückt, he flew from the Verrückt,'” Michelle Schwab stated to ABC News.
Waterpark staff responded quickly to reports of a loud boom and an injured boy at the Verrückt. When they arrived, they found the body of Caleb Schwab floating in the pool at the bottom of the slide.
While in the raft, Caleb and the other two riders had reached speeds up to 70 miles an hour. On the second hill, their raft went airborne, causing Caleb to collide with netting above the slide. The force of the collision decapitated Caleb, killing him instantly.
The other riders in the raft suffered facial injuries, such as a broken jaw and other bone fractures, but survived.
With such a grisly scene, park employees immediately called emergency services and blockaded the area.
“There was a gentleman who wouldn’t allow me to come close enough to see what was going on, and he just kept saying, ‘Trust me, you don’t want to go any further,'” Michele Schwab said to ABC News. “I kind of knew in my mind that I shouldn’t see it, that I probably don’t want to see it.”
According to ABC News, Scott Schwab immediately asked one of the employees to give him the honest truth. “I said, ‘I just need to hear you say, is my son dead?’ And [the employee] just shook his head. ‘I need to hear it from you…is my son dead?’ And he said, ‘Yes, your son’s dead.'”
The Shocking History Of The Verrückt Waterslide
The story of how Caleb Schwab lost his life on the Verrückt started long before he ever step foot on the ride.
After multiple setbacks, Schlitterbahn Waterpark opened Verrückt to the public in July 2014. At 168 feet seven inches tall, Verrückt was taller than Niagara Falls, and those that were daring enough to take the initial plunge described it as both an exhilarating and terrifying experience.
As reported by Texas Monthly, reviews included, “Most amazing ride I’ve ever ridden,” “Like dropping out of the sky,” and “Terrifying and horrible and terrific.”
The ride was an instant hit, and remained the park’s shining achievement until Caleb Schwab’s death.
Immediately following the accident, Schlitterbahn Waterpark closed the park for three days. When the park resumed operations, the Verrückt waterslide remained closed for investigation.
Investigators were initially unsure how the ride caused Caleb’s death. At first, the event seemed to be a freak accident — something that no one could have predicted. But the more investigators spoke to park employees and previous thrill seekers, the clearer the danger of the Verrückt became.
In an interview with Esquire, an unnamed lifeguard admitted: “I told my friends and family it was only a matter of time until someone died on Verrückt.” Worse, an examination of the slide shortly before its opening “guaranteed that rafts would occasionally go airborne in a manner that could severely injure or kill the occupants.”
During the ride’s creation and testing, rafts would frequently go airborne on its second hill. In clips from the Travel Channel’s show Xtreme Waterparks, the ride’s designers, Jeff Henry and John Schooley, lament at the ride’s slow progress as rafts go flying in front of their eyes.
Henry and Schooley constructed and deconstructed the ride several times, only allowing a small group of loyal employees to view the test runs. Finally, after constructing the slide for the last time, Henry and Schooley decided to “fix” their airborne raft problem by adding emergency netting above the ride.
This add-on, alongside a multitude of administrative and operational failures, would take Caleb Schwab’s life roughly two years later.
The Trial Of The Schlitterbahn Staff After Caleb Schwab’s Death
Following an investigation into the accident, authorities charged Jeff Henry, John Schooley, and general contractor Henry and Sons Construction Co., with second-degree murder. They also charged Schlitterbahn operations manager Tyler Miles with manslaughter for his role in covering up previous accidents at the park.
Evidence from the Travel Channel videos, as well as internal reports from the Schlitterbahn Waterpark, showed signs of willful negligence.
Prosecuting attorneys accused Miles of covering up multiple reports of injuries on Verrückt. According to Esquire, at least 13 other people reported non-fatal injuries, including concussions, herniated discs, and swollen eyes, from riding the slide.
Despite numerous reports attesting to serious safety concerns on the slide, Miles continued to ignore them .
Further investigation also found a disturbing lack of qualifications on the part of ride designer Jeff Henry. Henry was a high school dropout with no education in engineering.
When creating the slide, Henry and Schooley, who also had little experience in engineering, used “crude trial-and-error” methods to draw up plans for the slide, KCUR reported.
“If we actually knew how to do this and it could be done that easily, it wouldn’t be that spectacular,” court documents reported Schooley stating.
With these facts, the case seemed clear-cut. Henry, Schooley, and Miles would go to jail, families would receive justice, and lessons would be learned.
But that wasn’t what happened.
The Legacy Of Caleb Schwab And The Unexpected Turn In The Schlitterbahn Case
In early 2019, Judge Robert Burns dropped all charges against Jeff Henry, John Schooley, and Tyler Miles, citing prejudicial evidence.
The judge deemed footage from the Travel Channel show too dramatized and called it a disingenuous depiction of the ride’s creation.
Additionally, Judge Burns denounced the testimony of an unreliable witness in court, and even worse, stated that Henry and Schooley couldn’t have broken any ride safety laws because the state of Kansas had such lax regulations.
In a statement, Judge Burns wrote:
“The state’s expert witness repeatedly referred to engineering standards that were not required under Kansas law at the time Verrückt was constructed; and that the same expert improperly referred to another death that occurred at a Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Texas in 2013. Quite simply, these defendants were not afforded the due process protections and fundamental fairness Kansas law requires.”
In 2017, the Schwab family settled with Schlitterbahn Waterpark and other companies for 20 million dollars. Most of the settlement money was put into a scholarship fund called Can I Go Play, one of Caleb’s favorite questions to ask his parents, which aims “help kids who are willing to work hard and dedicate themselves to the discipline of getting better at whatever sport they love, be able to pursue that passion without being held back by money.”
Scott Schwab has also used his power as a Kansas state representative to push for stronger regulations at amusement parks.
Following his emotional speech to the Kansas House of Representatives, the legislature voted in favor of a law that would require that amusement park rides be inspected annually by an inspector certified by one of several national boards, a certified engineer with two years of experience in the amusement park industry, or someone with five years of experience in the amusement park industry. It also requires parks to report any injuries.
Attorneys of the family stated to ABC:
“While trying to piece their lives back together and while pursuing claims against responsible parties, the Schwabs have committed to ensuring this slide never operates again and that rules are implemented requiring close oversight of amusement parks. As a result of their efforts, the Verrückt has been decommissioned and will be dismantled once litigation concludes. The push for close governmental oversight will continue.”
When ABC News asked how his family was handling the loss of their son, Scott Schwab stated: “We have a box of greeting cards from around the world, and we just want people to know we’re grateful, and yeah, we’re still hurting, but we’re going to be okay.”
After reading about the tragic death of Caleb Schwab, discover eight of history’s most brutal amusement park accidents. Then, read about how Dawn Brancheau died while training killer whales at SeaWorld.