Would Caleb Schwab still be alive today had he been placed in the center seat of the Verruckt water slide raft? Physics and engineering experts say that poor weight distribution in the raft may have been responsible for the child's death and that Schlitterbahn should have tested all possible weight combinations in the rafts to ensure complete safety.
Caleb Schwab, 10, was killed on the "world's tallest water slide" after his raft went airborne and caused his head to hit a metal support ring that was used to hold up safety netting around the slide. The death caused national outrage as many questioned the safety standards at the Schlitterbahn park.
— Parenting.com (@parenting) August 10, 2016
Kansas is known for its lax regulations for water and amusement parks, with parks handling their own safety inspections. However, some experts are now questioning if the Verruckt had been properly tested regarding weight distribution of rafts.
That huge waterslide where a kid died? It was basically built and maintained with minimal oversight for user safety. https://t.co/5988cT57e7
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 15, 2016
The Kansas City Star reports that Caleb Schwab, who weighed just 73 pounds, was placed in the front of the raft while the largest passenger, a woman weighing 275 pounds, was placed in the back. A second woman weighing 197 pounds was then placed in the center seat. Experts say the extreme weight difference between the front and back of the raft may have contributed to the fatal accident.
Mariusz Ziejewski, a professor in the department of engineering and the director of the Impact Biomechanics Laboratory at North Dakota State University, told the Star that in a ride like the Verruckt, weight distribution should be a top priority. He notes that in the case of Caleb Schwab, the raft was so unevenly distributed that it could have caused the front of the boat to push upwards.
"You kind of have this catapult upwards. Maybe this was a contributing factor. That's not good."
Paul Rulis, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, noted that there is "no question" that the weight distribution of Caleb Schwab's raft made the situation much worse than it would have been in a more evenly distributed seating arrangement.
"If the raft is loaded significantly heavier toward the back and lighter toward the front, that would shift the center of mass and the raft's pivot point toward the rear. Should a raft go airborne, it's possible the boat would essentially pop a wheelie — the back of the raft would stay low while air resistance pushes the nose upward. There's no question that having a light person in front made it worse."
Many of the experts are now wondering if the Verruckt was tested for these extreme weight conditions. Ziejewski says that the ride's designers should have tested all of these scenarios with heavier weights in front, back, and middle to determine what problems could occur in different ride setups.
Carl Finocchiaro, an engineer who works for Spectrum Forensics in Denver, says that though the Verrückt waterslide was tested at both the 400-pound and 550-pound weight limits, he says it should have also been tested for varying weight distributions.
"You would attempt to have every condition of loading. You'd want to test some combination of weights to arrive at 400-550 range. Loading in the boat is a completely different variable, and the hydrodynamic behavior it shows... I would expect testing to have addressed that. Put the heavier in the front and light in the back, you reverse it just to see what it does... I don't know if they've ever tested for an individual that light in the front and two relatively heavy riders in the back."
The two women riding in the raft with Caleb also sustained facial injuries during the accident and have recently spoke out about the incident. CBS News reports that Hannah Barnes, 32, and Matraca Baetz, 25, were identified as the female riders on the raft with Caleb at the time of the fatal accident. The two women released a statement about the accident through their lawyers, noting that they are doing everything in their power to ensure a tragedy like this doesn't happen again.
"Being mothers ourselves, we can only hope that Caleb's family can find some comfort in knowing we are doing everything we know how to do to stop something so tragic from occurring again to any other family."
An investigation into the accident is still ongoing, and the Verruckt remains closed.
[Photo by Charlie Riedel/AP Images]