On July 17, 1981, a community in Kansas City, Missouri was stunned when 114 people lost their lives and 216 people were left injured after two “skywalks” at the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed, crushing guests who were attending the hotel’s tea dance below.
Prior to the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City, on September 11, 2001, the disaster held the record for the deadliest structural collapse in United States history.
On the day of the disaster, 1,600 guests were present at the hotel’s weekly tea dance, which had become a popular local event. Around 7pm that night, just moments after guests claimed to have heard popping noises, the fourth floor skywalk holding 20 people collapsed, falling directly on top of of the second floor skywalk below it, which was holding 40 people. The 128,000 pound weight of the two steel bridges then plummeted to the lobby, where hundreds of people were attending the tea dance, leaving them crushed and trapped.
The accident occurred due to an architectural engineering flaw in the support assembly which held the two bridges. Initially, the design called for the bridges to be suspended by 6 steel tie rods that would run continuously from the ceiling through both bridges. After disputes over the minimum load requirements, Havens Steel Company changed the plans. In the new plans, the bridges would be suspended by 12 shorter tie rods, with 6 of them running from the ceiling to the fourth floor bridge, and another 6 running from the fourth floor bridge to the second floor bridge. Consequently, the design resulted in the doubling of the load for the fourth floor bridge, because it now had to support the second floor skywalk in addition to its own weight. The rods that held the fourth floor skywalk were barely strong enough to support the two bridge’s 64 tons of steel, but now, with spectators adding weight to the two bridges, the center rod assembly of the fourth floor skywalk became stressed, causing the welded joint that connected the rod to the beam’s C-channel to snap, resulting in the the fourth floor bridge collapsing at the center and falling onto the second floor bridge, which also collapsed under the pressure.
The rescue operation that followed lasted 14 hours, and with 111 people killed instantly (3 later died at the hospital), and hundreds trapped, desperate measures were taken to save those who were barely holding on. The rescue required 34 EMS and fire units, as well as doctors from 5 hospitals. Due to the 64 ton weight of the steel bridges, forklifts were not powerful enough to lift the steel beams, and eventually, the hotel’s manager directed rescuers to break the hotel’s skylights in order to allow crane cables to reach the site of the collapse. To make matters worse, the sprinkler system that was contained in the bridges had been severed, causing the entire lobby floor to fill with water as people were pinned under the rubble, nearly drowning several victims. Because the sprinkler system was connected to independent tanks rather than a water line, the water could not be turned off, requiring firemen to use a bulldozer to rip out the hotel’s foyer in order to allow the lobby to drain of water. In what is perhaps the most morbid aspect of the disaster, firemen and EMS personnel were required to use chainsaws and jackhammers to dismember the bodies of people who had already died, in order to reach those who were still living. One jackhammer operator, Bill Allman, committed suicide years after the disaster due to stress from the events that day. In a 1982 interview with, The Desert Sun, he stated, “I can still feel the blood hitting me all over my clothes and boots as the legs and arms were cut to get at the people still alive… I’ll be sitting, talking to someone, and I’ll see the bodies.”
In all, 29 people were rescued from the rubble during the operation that day.
As a result of the disaster, an investigation was conducted, which found that the collapse was due to miscommunication between Jack D. Gillum & Associates (the engineers of the hotel) and the Havens Steel Company. The engineer from Jack D. Gillum & Associates who had spoken with Havens Steel, reportedly approved the change in the tie rod assembly of the skywalks, over the phone, without ever reviewing the plans. Despite this, Jack D. Gillum & Associates was cleared of criminal negligence, however, the business did lose its engineering license and was forced to close. The owner of the hotel, the Crown Center Corporation, paid more than $140 million in wrongful death and injury settlements to the people affected by the disaster. Today, the disaster is still studied throughout the world in courses on engineering ethics.
In 2001, A&E aired a special about the disaster on the show Minute by Minute:
The memorial for the disaster was opened by the Skywalk Memorial Foundation on November 12, 2015 at Hospital Hill Park in Kansas City.
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