The death of 10-year-old Kansas boy Caleb Schwab on the world's tallest waterslide raised concerns again Monday about the loosely regulated amusement park business, which isn't overseen by any federal agency.
Caleb, the son of Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe, died Sunday on the Verrückt ride at the Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kansas.
An autopsy showed that Caleb, who was in a carriage with two women, died of an unspecified neck injury at the end of the ride in the water pool, Kansas City police said. The two other riders, who weren't identified but who were described as not being related to the Schwabs, were treated for minor facial injuries, police said.
Kansas City police said they were investigating the case as an accident. Schlitterbahn, which also operates water parks in Texas, said Monday that it was "deeply saddened" and that the park would remain closed until Wednesday at the earliest.
Clint Sprague, lead pastor of LifeMission Church, where the Schwabs are members, said the family almost didn't to the park, which was holding "Elected Officials Day" on Sunday.
"There was a lot of cloud cover, and they were debating whether they were going to go," Sprague told reporters Monday. "The clouds lifted and they decided to go.
"They're a powerful family, a powerful family. Amazing," said Sprague, who is serving as a spokesman for the family.
The Verrückt — a German word for "insane" or "crazy" — is the park's marquee attraction. It drops riders almost 169 feet at 65 mph. Its marketing materials include the slogan "R U Insane?" and it's listed by Guinness World Records as the world's tallest waterslide.
"Safety is our top priority at Schlitterbahn," it reads. "All rides are inspected daily before opening."
But that's not because any agency, state or federal, requires it to do so.
Under Kansas law, "permanent rides" at amusement parks must be inspected only once a year — by a qualified inspector hired by the amusement park itself.
The state Labor Department, which administers the regulation, said Monday that it is "reviewing the matter."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission hasn't had the power to oversee amusement parks for 35 years, after Congress stripped its authority in 1981 as part of a package of deregulatory budget cuts.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the largest trade association for permanent amusement park rides, says there's "no evidence federal oversight would improve on the already excellent safety record of the amusement park industry."
When NBC News surveyed the laws of all 50 states in 2013, it found that 17 had no state agency responsible for inspecting permanent amusement park rides. An updated CPSC database (PDF) indicates that none of those states has added mandatory state inspections since then.
"The good news is that there are very few fatalities, whether we're talking about amusement parks and water parks, but there are many injuries," Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive of the nonprofit, congressionally chartered National Safety Council, told NBC News on Monday.
"In many respects, we are trusting that the host of a business — whether it's an amusement park or water park or a traveling facility — to provide rides that someone is looking out for our safety," said Hersman, a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The challenge is that we don't always know what that is and what the oversight is. It varies from state to state and locality to locality."
(NBC News is owned by NBCUniversal, which operates Universal Studios theme parks in Hollywood, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. California requires annual state inspections. Florida inspects only theme parks that employ fewer than 1,000 full-time employees — which exempts Universal Orlando Resort.)
The way it works in other states is similar to what's happening this week in Sandusky, Ohio.
But under state law, the ride remains closed pending a state re-inspection.