On this day, July 17th, exactly 37 years ago, the deadliest structural failure in the United States of America occurred in my hometown. That summer evening in 1981 an unimaginable disaster took place inside the year-old Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel, which at the time was the tallest building in Missouri at 40 stories. The egregious mistake and how the Hyatt treated survivors and families of the victims is why I will never stay at a Hyatt hotel.
At 7:05 PM a swing-dance tune brought the crowd to the dance floor as spectators took to the skywalks to watch the festivities. The fourth-floor walkway was 45-feet above the ground level. It collapsed at the weight of having about 40 people on it and took with it the second-floor walkway which was suspended from it. The second-floor walkway was 15 feet above the floor and had around 20 people on it. There were about 1,600 guests at the luxury hotel for the Friday night tea dance, including my mother, who was 24. 114 people died. The youngest victim was an 11-year-old girl, Pamela Coffey. Over 200 suffered life-altering injuries, including my aunt, who was 26.
Some call the Hyatt Regency collapse a careless human error or an engineering oversight. Officially, the cause of the collapse is simply explained as a design flaw. A gross excuse for an event that took the lives of so many and left an entire community physically and mentally traumatized. No matter which way you look at it, the tragedy of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel was easily avoidable as the skywalks simply should have never been suspended from each other.
The original designs from the engineers of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel, Jack D. Gillum and Associates, suggested the use of support rods to suspend the walkways from the ceiling directly, which would have been the strongest option. Gillum has stated that he was trying to fast-track the project in order to meet the deadline. He has been quoted saying that the fatal design flaw could have been seen by “any first-year engineering student.”
The final design was approved haphazardly over the phone by a project engineer at the firm who apparently asked a technician to review the drawings. The technician didn’t perform full calculations on the new suspension connections, but just spot checks. The engineer of record didn’t personally check the calculations, but used his seal to sign off on the documents.
The new building plan was carried out and the second-floor walkway was suspended by rods from the upper walkway. The ‘design flaw’ here is that the fourth-floor walkway had to hold its own weight and the weight of the other walkway, therefore, doubling the stress on the upper walkway. The dangling walkways were secured to box beams with small nuts and washers, they didn’t use stiffener plates, which are steel support slates. According to the Kansas City Star, a worker had noticed a box beam bending when adding in drywall during the building phase and thought nothing of it. This massive engineering failure came crashing down that night in July 1981. When Gillum arrived at the scene he said he noticed the missing stiffeners immediately and that they would have prevented the collapse.
The fatal design change made the walkways capable of bearing just 21,400 pounds, while building code at the time required that the structures be able to hold 68,000 pounds. This entire design was in violation of the Kansas City building codes at the time. Yet, somehow an inspector approved the structure and it managed to stay intact for the Hyatt Regency Kansas City’s first year of business.
An investigation of the Hyatt Regency was launched by the National Bureau of Standards. Edward Prafang, who led the investigation, stated that the walkways weren’t secure enough to hold their own weight. Before investigators could observe and test the structure of the remaining walkway, Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. removed the third walkway from the Kansas City Hyatt Regency in the middle of the night. To make matters worse, when Hyatt Regency reopened 75 days later there was no memorial, plaque, or acknowledgment of any sort of the horror that occurred.
The Hyatt Regency engineers were never convicted of criminal negligence by the city. However, the Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors did convict the Gillum, the engineer of record of the project, of gross negligence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct. Gillum and his engineering firm lost their licenses and ASCE membership. Gillum made a new career by booking speaking engagements about the tragedy–he often gets standing ovations.
The aftermath of the Hyatt Regency collapse is what haunts me. My beloved aunt has suffered unimaginable life-long pain and my mother’s trauma is remembering every detail of that night. Treacherous legal battles went on for years with my mother, aunt, survivors, and families of the deceased. The Halls family, who also own Hallmark Cards, was the owner of the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the time and eventually admitted liability.
The Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards, oversaw construction of the hotel and paid around $140 million in settlements to survivors and families of victims. In 1983, my aunt’s case was the first to go to trial. Because of the Hyatt Regency skywalks’ collapse, she suffered a broken neck, permanent damage to her spinal cord, and countless other injuries. She is paralyzed for life because of her injuries from the Hyatt Regency skywalks’ collapse. Hyatt’s defense attorney, Michael Waldeck, told jurors that my aunt had an ‘amazing’ recovery. Waldeck said, “’in reasonable bounds, if she channels the anger that now exists, she can do what she sets her mind to do.”
Hyatt went on to attempt to countersue paralyzed victims in 1985, including my aunt. Hyatt asked for new trails or that the victims accept smaller settlements. My aunt had been asked to return 16% of the funds she’d be awarded. Hyatt then demanded that she return 50%. The remittitur made it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court where Hyatt claimed that the rewards previously given in court were excessive. Hyatt claimed that the evidence presented to the jury of my aunt’s injuries was greatly enhanced. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the awards were fair and denied a rehearing.
The Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel is now owned by Sheraton and known as the Sheraton at Crown Center. Still to this day, in the area where the skywalks fell, there’s no memorial of the tragedy that occurred in the building 37 years before. Sheraton has firmly stated that they want to move on from the hotel’s tragic past. Sheraton had nothing to do with the tragedy in 1981, and they have no responsibility for the events that night. Hyatt Regency never publicly acknowledged the tragedy by apologizing to the survivors and families of victims.
In 2015 the Skywalk Memorial was unveiled. It’s a beautiful sculpture of two dancers who join together to form a broken heart. However, this PR stunt doesn’t provide any sort of aid or resources for victims, survivors, or rescue workers. Hallmark donated $25,0000 towards the memorial. The Skywalk Memorial has several misspellings of victims names, some which have still not been corrected. The memorial simply isn’t enough to allow those whose lives were shattered in 1981 find closure after over 37 years of mental and physical pain.