Water park safety examined after Kansas boy's death

Last Updated Aug 9, 2016 4:44 PM EDT

Caleb Schwab, the 10-year-old son of a state legislator in Kansas, died while riding the world's tallest water slide. Officials said he suffered a fatal neck injury, and was dead by the time first responders reached him.

Statistics on injuries at water parks are scarce, despite there being about 1,300 water parks operating in North America that attracted about 85 million people in 2015.

Inspecting and ensuring the safety of water park rides varies from state to state, and there is no federal oversight for permanent rides.

"All of the regulations are really done at the state and local level with respect to amusement parks and water parks. There are no federal standards and so it really is up to the park operators, the manufacturers of the rides and the states to make sure this is a safe environment," said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

Kansas statutes leave it to its Department of Labor to adopt rules and regulations relating to certification and inspection of rides, adding that an amusement ride at a permanent location "shall be self-inspected by a qualified inspector at least every 12 months."

According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, which reviewed inspection records from the state's Department of Labor, Schlitterbahn Waterpark, where Schwab died, hadn't been inspected by the state since 2012, two years before the ride named Verruckt -- the German word for "insane" -- opened.

Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio said Sunday the park's rides are inspected daily and by an "outside party" before the start of each season. The details of who does the inspections have not been released.

Caleb Schwab.jpg

Caleb Schwab, 10, was killed while on the world's tallest water slide at a Kansas City, Kansas, water park.

Family photo

Prosapio declined interview requests Monday but told reporters a day earlier that Schwab had been at the park with family members, adding that "we honestly don't know what's happened."

Even from before the 2014 opening of the ride, which was repeatedly delayed, there were issues.

In a news article linked to the delay, Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry told USA Today that he and senior designer John Schooley had based their calculations when designing the slide on roller coasters, but that didn't translate well to a waterslide like Verruckt.

In early tests Schlitterbahn, rafts carrying sandbags flew off the slide, prompting engineers to tear down half of the ride and reconfigure some angles at a cost of $1 million, Henry said.

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.

On the water slide, riders sit in multi-person rafts during "the ultimate in water slide thrills," subjecting "adventure seekers" to a "jaw dropping" 17-story drop, the park's website says. Passengers then are "blasted back up a second massive hill and then sent down yet another gut wrenching 50 foot drop," the website adds.

worlds-tallest-waterslide-ap822623600134.jpg

In this photo taken with the fisheye lens, riders go down the world's tallest water slide called "Verruckt" at Schlitterbahn Waterpark, Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Kansas City, Kan.

Charlie Riedel, AP

When it initially opened, the park advertised the ride for only people 14 years and older. That age requirement is no longer posted on the park's website, though passengers must be at least 4 feet, 6 inches tall and the combined weight of the passengers in the raft must fall between 400 and 550 pounds.

Two other women, unrelated to Schwab, were in the raft when the boy died. They suffered injuries to their faces, according to authorities.

The apparent shift away from the age restriction could be one of the questions in determining liability, according to CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman, who said the park owner and ride designer face potential legal troubles over Schwab's death.

There's also anecdotal evidence of problems with the ride's safety equipment. Parkgoer Paul Oberhauser told CBS News his belt came off while riding with a friend and his 9-year-old son about two weeks ago.

"As soon as I hit the bottom of the first curve the shoulder strap just kind of busted loose," Oberhauser said.

He said he had to grip handles by his legs to hold on and told park staff what happened.

"They kinda said, 'Oh no, really,' or something, 'Yes, that's not good.' And so it sounded like you know they were gonna do something about it," Oberhauser said.

In a statement, Schlitterbahn said safety is their "top priority" and that the rides are inspected daily.

The theme park is expected to reopen Wednesday.

The operator of the waterslide say that the 17-story ride will remain shut down for the remainder of the season.