Schlitterbahn water park will open, but 11 rides will stay closed

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A Kansas water park where a boy was killed on a giant waterslide in 2016 planned to open for its annual season as scheduled Friday with 11 of its rides closed following a state audit that park attorneys called a "malicious effort" to "stir up unfounded fear" about safety.

The Schlitterbahn park in Kansas City, Kansas, announced on its website Thursday night that six attractions would be operating. None of them were specifically mentioned in a Kansas Department of Labor audit released earlier this week after an inspection last week. The department issued a notice alleging 11 violations of state amusement park regulations, mostly pertaining to record-keeping and safety signs.

The rides the park planned to keep closed initially were all mentioned in the audit and included various slides, a surfing ride and the Soaring Eagle ZipLine, a "dry" ride that pulls riders in a two-seat chair across the park 100 feet above the ground. The park said in its Facebook posting that it has addressed the bulk of the audit issues but wants to let state and local officials, inspectors, park staff, consultants and attorneys finish "their process."

"Until that process is complete, we will not open the other rides," the statement said.

But, the park also said, "We are glad to say that we have addressed the bulk of the issues in the report and we are fully confident that our rides and park are safe and ready."

Attorneys for the park's management company argued in a letter Wednesday to the department that it exceeded its legal authority in conducting the audit and was required to give the park "reasonable" time to rectify any issues. The attorneys also rejected audit findings that equipment for the ZipLine had not been replaced as recommended by its manufacturer.

Despite their "strong disagreement" with the audit report, the attorneys wrote, the park would not open rides until audit questions were "fully addressed."

"This appears to be nothing more than a malicious effort on the part of the State to stir up unfounded fear and cast doubts on this company in the wake of the tragic accident in 2016," attorneys Erik Beard and Melanie Morgan wrote. "The State's action is unconscionable and we demand the State take remedial action to end this abuse."

The letter demanded a response by Thursday, but there was no indication whether the department sent one.

Department spokeswoman Barbara Hersh did not respond directly to the attorney's criticism but said the department was "encouraged" that the park said it would not open rides until the attractions complied with regulations.

"It is important to be proactive when conducting audits for the safety of the public," she said in an email.

Caleb Thomas Schwab

Department officials promised in March to audit the Schlitterbahn park's records after a local grand jury issued multiple criminal indictments over the August 2016 death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab. He was decapitated while riding a 17-story Verruckt waterslide, which was billed as the world's tallest and was shut down after his death.

The co-owner of the Texas-based Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts, one of the Verruckt slide's designers, the Kansas City park's former operations director and the company that built Verruckt all face numerous felony charges. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The recent audit made dozens of findings and said safety signs in some park areas were inadequate, records were not available for review, and some operating and training manuals were incomplete. Schlitterbahn's attorneys noted that no rides were in operation at the time and that most of the issues raised "do not generally impact guest safety."

The notice said the 11 violations listed in its notice, each covering multiple findings, represented a first offense and the department was issuing the park a warning.

One count in the department's notice said inspection checklists, trainer qualification and other records for the ZipLine weren't available for review and added that it has not replaced parts as recommended by the manufacturer.

But Schlitterbahn attorneys said the manufacturer did inspections each of the past two years and was issuing a "bulletin" saying the existing parts are safe.