At 7:05 p.m. on July 17, 1981, two walkways inside the Hyatt Regency hotel at Crown Center collapsed during a massive party. By the time the wreckage had been cleared, 114 were dead and 216 were injured. This Sunday, July 17, 2011, marks the 30th anniversary of the disaster, and a special event at the Kansas City Public Library will explore its causes and aftereffects.
At 2 p.m. at the Central Library, a panel discussion will begin, featuring building experts, a first responder on the scene, and community members who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Steve Kraske of the Kansas City Star moderates.
A brand-new book will also be unveiled. The result of a partnership between Kansas City Star Books and the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, A Dance, Then Disaster: The Hyatt Tragedy and Lessons Learned explores the structural failure, the rescue efforts, and the many lessons learned—from improved first-responder techniques to revised architectural and engineering standards.
If you wish to attend the public discussion, please RSVP online. Admission is free, as is parking the Library’s garage.
The book won’t be available until this Friday, so we decided to search the Library’s newspaper archives on microfilm to get a sense of how Kansas Citians reacted to the most deadly structural failure in the nation’s history, and how the press covered it. (Note: Microfilm isn’t the best photo-preserving method; for higher-quality photos, visit the Star's dedicated site.)
On the morning of Saturday, July 18, the Kansas City Times ran a report of the catastrophe, along with first-hand accounts and photos.
It had been the evening of the hotel’s weekly “tea dance,” a party featuring drinks and ballroom dancing to a live swing band, the Steve Miller Orchestra. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people were in attendance. All was well, survivor Richard Howard told the Times, until there was the sound of “a big snap, like lighting in your back yard.”
It was the worst thing I have ever seen. You could watch the people on the walkway grab a hold of the walkway. Then, they disappeared. They just all flew over. I think it was the weight of the people that made it collapse. Then I saw arms and legs and heads sticking out under the thing. It was just terrible.
As the ensuing investigation would prove, Howard was mistaken – it wasn’t the weight of the people.
The collapse was caused by serious design flaws that resulted from miscommunication between the engineering firm and the construction company that built the walkways. Instead of being supported from the ceiling of the hotel, the 2nd floor walkway was hanging from the 4th floor walkway.
Both walkways, then, were supported by one set of rods bolted into a box beam in the ceiling, held in place by nuts and washers. When the people poured onto the walkways, the rods ripped through the beam. One architect told the Star that “it was like pulling a staple through a piece of paper.”
A Times graphic illustrates how the fourth-floor walkway fell two stories onto the second-floor walkway below it.
As the final death toll rose, loss, grief, and demand for recompense roiled. Lawsuits surged. Donald J. Hall, president of Hallmark Cards, the parent company of Crown Center Redevelopment, which owned the hotel, was described as “haggard” when he told the Times on July 20: “There is nothing that could have hurt more. I’ve had a dickens of a time getting my thoughts together. We all have. We still are.”
The community was so focused on the tragedy that, a week after the collapse, the Times ran a story on a thief who purchased a $599 oven from Macy’s using a check somehow stolen from a woman who had died in the disaster.
The Times and its sister publication the Star won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the disaster.
Learn more about the Hyatt Regency Disaster and its consequences this Sunday, July 17, at 2 p.m.
Find more in-depth information about the disaster on our website here. For further reading and research, visit the microfilm collection on the 3rd floor of the Central Library; the Missouri Valley Special Collections also contains a special compilation of newspaper clippings related to the disaster.
-- Jason Harper