Caleb Thomas Schwab Wasn’t Brave. He Was Ten. How We Let A Child Die In Kansas.


UPDATE 5/4/17: The Kansas City Star is reporting that settlement amounts to Caleb’s family total $20 million. The women involved would not entertain settlements until Schlitterbahn agreed to tear the Verruckt down. Their settlements are confidential.


We know he died of a neck injury. We know there was blood on the scene. We know at least two others sustained injuries. There are eye witness accounts and some who still can’t bring themselves to speak. It doesn’t take too much deductive reasoning to figure out what happened when reports confirm the body of a child was found face down in water instead of smiling and enjoying a rapid heart beat.

And a family is grieving the horrific and tragic and unfathomable, brutal death of their ten year old boy.

Dozens more dealing with shell shock from what they’ve seen.

It has been, for two days, unspeakable. No more. This child deserves a voice.

The news started circulating in the early afternoon and evening on August 7th. Details were scarce. Sifting through social media, one could find a Facebook account or two. Choppers were on site and reporters were sharing what they thought they knew. Within 24 hours, speculation had grown as some were just hearing about events in their own hometown.

The son of a senator had been killed while riding the tallest water slide in the world.

It took one photograph from a news chopper to confirm the unthinkable.

And while the pastor for the family wants to assure us all that this boy knew Jesus, I’m a tad confused how that makes any fucking sense — or difference. My question is: Did he know he was risking his very life for amusement?

Kansas was chosen by Schlitterbahn as the site of the Verrückt because of zero concern about height of an attraction. Kansas also has zero state enforcement in regulating any of them. Independent firms decide what is safe and what isn’t. This water slide was billed as the record breaking precedent. Taller than Niagara Falls and the Statue of Liberty, it was to be the pinnacle of bravery for all who would descent.

As a bodily autonomy advocate, I say, go for it. If you want to jump out of an airplane at 25,000 feet without a chute, you ought to have that freedom. Provided your body isn’t going to do damage to anything or anyone. And if you want to climb 17 stories and get on a raft to plummet back down with G-Force, it’s totally your call. Who am I to tell you any different? You are a person with agency and you don’t need my permission. At all.

But we aren’t talking about a consenting adult making a rational decision. This is a ten year old child relying on the same fabric he uses to fasten his shoes to fall 168 feet from the sky on water at 65mph in a world where velocity and physics rule.

There is no way in hell this child knew what he was doing.

Because, yes, while children at this age have learned to reason and have greater aptitude at evaluating concrete problems, they are not mastered at cause/effect or final consequence. Their frontal lobe is nowhere near that kind of risk assessment. Even the most prodigious ten year old will not have the biological brain power necessary to evaluate fully how physics trumps thrills and can sever your life completely.

There is no reason a civil society should have permitted a ten year old child to risk his death. None.

Am I arguing that age ought to be the factor when it comes to coasters or fun? Of course not. There are times and places and evaluations in these discussions with nuance. But since we are not talking about a fully regulated, highly engineered, safety inspected ride, that is a moot point.

The Verrückt was trial and error from the start. Breaking records for the sake of pride and risking the lives of every single person who took the chance. The design was flawed from the onset. It was exactly what its name represents: insane. It wasn’t brave to endure this water ride, it was false confidence.

Even grown adults who dared take the chance had reservations and admitted they would never do it again. And if we are to believe the rider accounts, this slide wasn’t anything but a full fledged dare devil mission.

So, why was a ten year old child permitted by this park to go on it? Why was there no legitimate check and balance? How could anyone not consider that at his age, regardless of height or weight, there was no way this boy could have made a consensual choice to say yes to the actual danger that awaited him?

Because no one gave a shit.

Because we, as a society, put our trust in these attractions as amusement. Because we believe there is no way we would be granted permission if any real danger was actually present. And we are wrong. And have learned that in the past and now the present.

Sure, we can and should stand on the principles that autonomy regulates our bodies. We can and should fight regulation that prohibits our moving freely. We can and should take risks and push the boundaries. But when it comes to our kids, we also have to realize they are entrusted to our keep.

We are the grown ups. We’re supposed to know what we’re doing.

And Caleb’s death is so fucking gut wrenching. Not just because it’s gruesome and not just because it’s a case study in whether net cages even matter if we’re talking about velocity of a human body. But because it’s another in the course of many that were so easily prevented if we’d only stopped to think.

Not only three months ago, we watched as so called barriers couldn’t contain the fast feet of a three year old as he fell into the grip of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. A month later, we read about the playful toes of a toddler that became bait for a gator at a Disney Resort. We found people to blame and raged in debate and yet here we are again, this time, as before, with no excuse.

We have a duty to do better. And we should.

And it isn’t going to be by regulating the crap out of every single activity a grown adult decides to do. But it ought to be about considering our kids are members of our society too.

If these family themed parks and recreations are going to pitch their product to our children, then we have a duty to evaluate the actual currency we’re willing to spend. And more so, never let their actual lives be the wager of cost/benefit.

This child was someone’s son, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend. He was someone’s future. And now he’s gone. In an instant.

And that’s on us.

Because we let a ten year old child climb 264 steps to his death.

And that should not have happened.


Elizabeth Grattan is a broadcast talent and writer who has covered current events, human interest and social justice for over twenty-five years. Her loves are the strong, gentle arms of her best friend, reasonably priced blended reds and her dream come true little man. Find & friend Elizabeth on FB or follow along on Twitter.