Tuesday, July 10, 2018

4 Rides Still Closed

Latest from Kansas City: it looks like a handful of rides are still closed. According to the latest from the Kansas City Star Schlitterbahn is feeling a bit singled out with the new random inspections imposed by the State. Per the quotes in the article it seems they feel it is unfair when none of the other rides at the park have resulted in the death of a patron. It is like they are saying: Come on guys, you can trust us! We only killed one boy and injured others by operating a ride that insulted safety standards and is now an alleged murder weapon. 

Now all that this could be is just good 'ole fashioned PR work attempting to cast the failed inspections in the best possible light. I mean they missed the opportunity to restore public trust by having a clean inspection so who can blame them for trying to spin this a little? After all, resentment is a powerful force in America. If they can successfully portray themselves as the poor little embattled business owners taking on onerous new regulations than they are going to hit a rich vein within the American Zietgeist. Given Trump is the President I am scared to ask who else has the gall to think that they're being singled out by a State Agency after they settled a wrongful death civil suit and are fighting murder charges. I'd really hate to know. But I'm sure that when the time comes the right-wing political machine will hold this park up as an example of 'regulations out of control' better 'take your country back' again again from those Evil Liberal Killjoys (and I'm certain the reactionaries running the Democratic Party will respond with yet another surefire strategy to make certain that Nancy Pelosi is still on the gravy train).

The whole regulation as the Insurance Journal reminds us in an emotional manner (for, surely, mercenary reasons) was a tough sell in a State like Kansas:
[Gov. Sam] Brownback had promised to follow [father of the victim State Representative Scott]  Schwab’s lead. Schwab didn’t comment on the bill until he gave an emotional speech in support of it last month in the House. He told fellow House members that he didn’t come to the Legislature to increase regulations and he wouldn’t hold it against anyone who didn’t vote for the bill. “But I will never deny government has a role,” he said. “And you can get to a point where there’s just not enough.” Schwab told lawmakers the bill wasn’t about Caleb, but rather for “the next kid who goes some place in Kansas for a fun weekend.”
 Also from the insurance journal:
Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio said there is no other ride like the Verruckt slide in the Schlitterbahn system, making it difficult to review practices and make potential safety changes to other rides.

 And as the criminal indictment alleges:

9.       On August 7, 2016, a 10-year-old boy, C.S. (xx/xx/2006), was decapitated and two adult women …were severely injured when raft B went airborne and collided with the overhead hoops and netting affixed to the VerrĪ‹ckt waterslide located at the Schiltterbahn Waterpark of Kansas City, Kansas.
10.   A video recording of C.S.’s death confirms that, at the time of his death, C.S. was obeying all rider instructions.
11.   The death of C.S. appeared at first to be an isolated and unforeseeable incident until whistleblowers from within Schiltterbahn’s own ranks came forward and revealed that Schiltterbahn officials had covered up similar incidents in the past.
12.   Experts in the field of amusement ride design and safety examined [the ride] and found physical evidence which indicated that other rafts had gone airborne and collided with the overhead hoops and netting before the fatality. Theses experts noted that [the ride]’s design violated nearly all aspects of the longstanding industry American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM – from Key Individuals and Entities portion:  ASTM sets technical standards for amusement ride safety that are recognized and accepted nationally and internationally as the minimum industry safety standards).
40.   HSC hired an outside engineering firm to perform accelerometer testing of the rafts as they went down [the ride]… one week before [the ride]’s grand opening – the accelerometer test result data indicated that rafts in the weight range of 400 pounds to 550 pounds would likely go airborne at the crest of the second hill.
41.   Investigators recovered the accelerometer data from HSC’s own project records, meaning HENRY and SCHOOLEY both had access to this data. HENRY and SCHOOLEY either: (1) completely disregarded the accelerometer report; (2) they lacked the education and training to interpret and understand the results; or (3) they understood the results but opened the ride nonetheless.

Come on guys. You can trust us. There's NO reason we should be singled out here, right? Funny that that is coming from a park that made sure to have a 'legislature appreciation day.' I'm going to have to look into that; is this common practice for theme parks or just for ones that receive financing via STAR bonds?

Sunday, June 3, 2018

While these Issues do not Generally Impact Guest Saftey...

New news this week: two more charges (according to a local ABC affiliate). Also some interesting developments from the Schlitterbahn Family of Resorts as they've been gearing up for the 2018 operating season. Their South Texas property was forced into a bankruptcy sale. And their deadly Kansas Waterpark failed to live up to the new safety standards imposed by the State since the change in the State's attitude toward safety regulation

The whole idea that a water-park needs minimal state intervention is based on the idea that a guest safety is so central to the operating of amusement attractions that no operator would ever allow such safety standards to dip. Yet according to Steve Vockrodt of the Kansas City Star while "Much of the Kansas Department of Labor audit identified missing operator manuals.... [i]t also found that parts on the Soaring Eagle Zipline, which were meant to operate for five years before replacement, were entering in their sixth year of operation."

So much for self-interested self-regulation. How a company facing criminal charges related to the maintenance of its attractions could make such an obvious blunder is mind-boggling. Are they so broke they can't afford proper maintenance? Are they so calloused that they feel that replacement schedules are a needless waste of time? Do they feel so besieged that they can not even see the plain writing on the wall? Are they just incompetent? Is the media sensationalizing the per-operation audit to imply that they were going to operate an attraction they never planned on opening this year? Who knows?

What we do know is that the new charges in the case are against the maintenance workers mentioned in the prior indictments. Not a shocking development as the original indictments indicate that these two individuals lied to investigators (and as the Muller probe reminds us: lying to the police is a crime). Now what will be interesting is that these are just employees. The other defendants are 'family members' of a 'family run' Amusement Resort Company. Perhaps these two will plead out and flip. Perhaps the charges are the pressure point to force the testimony.

Regardless, all of the above are just more bad omens for Schlitterbahn and the other defendants in the upcoming trials. Meanwhile the public face of the resorts ensures us that the fact that the State of Kansas could not find any maintenance logs for any of the park's attractions "... do not generally impact guest safety" while their lender, per the local business journal, has filed a report with the SEC to warn their investors that the likelihood of default on loans has increased because of all these pesky criminal charges (more on that soon).

(incompetence abounds on this case; according to this report the AG's office goofed and charged a non-existent business entity. That, at least, explains Schlitterbahn KC's acting at first as if they weren't charged with anything. Per Mr. Vockrodt's reporting in the KC Star look for a corrected indictment soon)

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The American Press Kills My Soul

Yahoo News had a piece from People that had dug some digging on one of the accused. According to the piece someone pulled his court records and found a couple of marijuana convictions and a allegation of domestic violence from a divorce proceeding. Being people & Yahoo they covered it in the most salacious way imaginable. Character Assassination at its most vile. It is, at least, original reporting. All that anyone else has done in any of the press that I've seen is go over the details of the indictment again and again. 

The details are shocking. If you haven't read it I would recommend doing so. It's from a grand jury proceeding so it's easy to read. It is not those shocking allegations that really interest me though. Those are going to be proven or dis-proven in court. Some may not even be included in the ultimate arguments made toward conviction. Right now they represent the opening salvos in a battle between lawyers. We've all seen enough Law & Order (Original) to know where this is going. 

One thing that does interest me is the fact that the State of Kansas had no regulations governing Amusement Parks and waterparks prior to the tragedy at the heart of the court case unfolding in Kansas City. They do now. Partly because such regulations are almost always reactionary. Partly because the victim in the case was the son of a state representative. The latter in my opinion because of our absurd polarized politics. 

Ironically the alleged murder occurred at a day where the park was closed to the general public but open to members of the elected State Government and their families.  Such occasions are obviously prime opportunity for lobbying. I'm certain such days are used to lobby the State of Kansas into ensuring that the regulations remain such that the parks get to self-regulate. Of course, if they dared build a murder-machine a murder-charge would surely follow. And has. With conviction bankruptcy presumably thereafter. So who would do such a thing? People magazine suggests a pothead might.

I think that the very fact that Schlitterbahn had produced a record-breaking attraction in record-breaking time-frame was only possible with the flexibility allowed by self-regulation. I know the park is pretty small. The huge slide is clearly the main attraction and there is some nearby competition. Across the expressway is an outpost of an indoor water-park chain, Great Wolf Resorts, and across town admission to Worlds of Fun, a Cedar Fair property, now includes admission to Oceans of Fun too. 

Schlitterbahn is a concept park. The "lazy" rivers are what set them apart from the cookie-cutter competition. It's a winning concept but they have to get people through the turn-styles and into the free inter-tubes. Sure, word of mouth is great, but having the worlds tallest waterside is better. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Fifth Estate needs an Enema

I can't express how disappointed I've been with the America Press of late. Houston Chronicle reports that defendant Schlitterbahn put out a new statement. What it looks like is that the spokesperson for Schlitterbahn was in the process of editing the statements while I was posting about it. The date of the Original Statement is from 03/23 & the statement from yesterday was put up last night around 7.00 PM. Same website. 

Some shoddy reporting confused me. The fact that the date on the statement changed confused me too. Regardless the updated statement can be found at the same place.

The new statement, like the old, looks to be the work of a legal amateur. It reminds me of something that Roxie or Velma might say in Chicago. I certainly hope that defendant Schlitterbahn did not pay an attorney for that statement.  Still no comment, publicly, regarding if defendant Schlitterbahn has retained representation for this matter.

A couple of things I want to point out. The statements make no reference to the charges against the companies. I'm not sure if that has to do with a finer point of the law but I have a feeling the content of these initial statements is going to become really important further down the road. Also, as the statement from defendant Schlitterbahn points out, "[Defendant] Jeff Henry has designed waterpark rides the world over.  Nearly every waterpark that exists today has an attraction or feature based on his designs or ideas." 

That is true. His slides are very well received throughout the industry by patrons & parks alike. I have personally ridden at least three rides he was directly involved in building, designing, or that used elements of his designs. They are known as "Watercoasters." On one of them I personally caught air. That is to say that my tuckus was no longer in contact with the raft while we crested a hill. 

Now I'm not certain if our raft actually left the flume but I have heard of a number of people being "dumped" into the flume on such watercoasters. Dumped passengers are often a symptom of an unsafe slide. Think of tubing on a natural rapid: you get dumped quite a bit because it's not engineered to be safe. My sister-in-law was dumped when she tried to ride with my father-in-law if I recall correctly. 

Now the operator of this particular park has extremely high safety standards. They have a very lucrative market to protect and they do also have a spotty history with patron safety themselves. Off the top of my head I can think of three verifiable tragedies that never should have occurred at one property alone.

Upon reflecting on my experience with that flume I don't believe it to be unsafe. But I do believe it might not live up to the safety standards that the designers and operators claim it does. If you watch a few videos of the flume you'll notice what we noticed when visiting. That ride can be rough.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On 03/27/2018 the Murder Indictment was Released to the Public

Some good info from KMBC 9 regarding latest developments. I found the Statement quoted in the Star-Telegram. This appears to be an official response from defendant Schlitterbahn and is posted on its website. There is also, now, a Q&A from the perspective of a potential consumer. The Q&A may be a response to an op-ed whose headline I saw but I haven't read. I'm not sure if the company has engaged representation for this matter. The last live-blog post from the Houston Chronicle that I saw was unclear. I've personally reached out to the spokesperson on Twitter. I am monitoring that channel. 

The first statement can be found on Schlitterbahn's website. It references the civil case. It is contradicted by the indictments in several places. It includes a statement from the attorneys for Tyler Miles. It refers to Mr. Miles in a familiar manner. The statement from Mr. Miles' attorneys that is attached to the end of defendant Schlitterbahn's statement points out some of the specific legal paths they intend to take in the court case. They have asked for a trial by jury (last paragraph). They are going to offer defenses against the allegations that Mr. Tyler "'avoided or delayed repairs,' [and]... 'had covered up similar incidents'." (first paragraph). They plan to attempt to have a great deal of the indictment thrown out as "evidence that is not legal" (third paragraph). I am no professional. They probably made other legal arguments in there. I can only pick out what I can pick out thanks to my personal work experiences. Unfortunately with my limited skill I can discern no strategy that defendant Schlitterbahn intends to take against the charges leveled against it. The reference to the "shocked Kansas legal community" is particularly ham-handed as the only evidence proffered is the statement of the other defendant's attorneys.

If what I suggested above is the truth than that would not be the actions of an office that understood the seriousness of criminal charges being levied at a company. But I don't really know that.

What I do know is that I will not willingly give money to a business that has been convicted of  criminal felonies involving the loss of human life. What I do know is that Schlitterbahn Waterpark of Kansas City, Kansas is charged with twenty felonies including felony manslaughter. What I do know is that Henry & Sons Construction Company Inc. is charged with eighteen felonies including Second Degree Murder. What I do know is that both indictments contain the exact same explanation as of defendant Schlitterbahn's corporate structure: "Schlitterbahn consists of more than a dozen privately-held corporations owned and operated by the three Henry siblings. Although each corporation is technically a separate entity, the lines between those corporations are blurred. It is normal for an employee of one corporation to report to an employee at another corporation as if they were both members of the same company."

Monday, March 26, 2018

In the District Court of Wyandotte County Kansas

When I was a child in Atlanta a friend of mine vacationed in Texas. He would tell me stories of a water park that his family visited. He spoke of a sprawling mega-park featuring unique experiences more fun than anything on offer back in Georgia. Now we were young and he was probably just bragging about his family vacation but, still, I knew of the place he spoke and it already had legendary status among us people who know of, are involved in, and generally have an interest in the Amusement Industry: Schitterbahn. 

A strange word that means 'Wet Road' in German and is the name of the fabled New Braunfels, Texas water park where the water coaster was pioneered and the local German heritage is celebrated. Now I, myself, am no more than a lowly consumer of the Amusement Parks of our World. Yet my interest in the industry is and was strong enough that I knew of their pioneering work in water-based attractions and of their strong track record of in-house engineering. The water coaster was a resounding success for the park, brand, and designers of the concept. It was eventually sold-off and  installed around the world in countless popular attractions. I sought them out in my time.

As I've grown and grown less pliable my interest in theme parks, water parks and their attractions has somewhat mellowed but, I must admit, it is still my preferred vacation destination. I may not be able to recall obscure roller coasters from tiny parks in distant States but I still get on the 'ole Roller Coaster Database before I take a vacation. I may not obsess over coming attractions at distant European Theme Parks but I still see pull up Screamscape and see what's new when I happen to visit Orlando or Vegas or NYC. And, for as long as I've had disposable income, Schiltterbahn has been on a must-not-miss list should I find myself in the vicinity of the Greater Texas Region.

So when I learned of the tragedy that occurred at Schlitterbahn's Kansas City property I was rightly saddened and horrified of the details. A gruesome, untimely, and horrific end for the child. A scarring, terrifying, life-changing event for the survivors. Given the details reported in the press I suspected negligence and civil penalties to come forth (according to the star-telegram.com they did amount to about $20 million). I did not expect criminal indictments late last week nor the arrest today of Jeffery Henry (see prior hyperlink). 

The details in the indictment (the full text can be found here via KC Star), if upheld, are damning in the extreme. In the cited news clipping Schlitterbahn is offering to defend herself and her employees vigorously. As a person who might understand a little more about Amusement Industry than the average person I feel compelled to use this blog to discuss this case. As someone who has thought deeply about the repercussions of Amusement Park accidents I have a particular interest in following and reflecting on the themes of this case. I have some experience in the law and the patience to read legal documents. I have read the indictment in full. The assertions therein shock the conscience. I look forward to Schlitterbahn's response.