Hotel Horror

Hyatt  Regency Hotel
One hundred fourteen people die as two skywalks collapse at the Hyatt Regency Hotel during a tea dance.

On the evening of July 17, 1981, 2,000 dancers gathered in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel to partake in one of the regular "tea dances," which had become a local tradition over the previous year since the luxurious hotel had opened. Dozens had gathered on three walkways suspended from the ceiling so that they could observe the festivities below. At 7:05 p.m., two of these 32-ton walkways suddenly collapsed onto the dancers below. The disaster resulted in 114 deaths, 200 additional injuries, and as many unanswered questions from the victims' families and the survivors of the tragedy.

Construction on the Hyatt Regency Hotel had begun in 1978. It was located in the Crown Center commercial complex, which was then revitalizing a run-down part of the city near Union Station. With its revolving restaurant, a large atrium, an exhibit hall, conference facilities, and more than 700 guest rooms, the hotel contributed to the ritzy environment of Crown Center. At 40 stories tall, the Hyatt Regency would be the tallest building in the state of Missouri until 1986. After it opened in July, 1980, its regularly-held tea dances attracted thousands of visitors to the area.

After just one year, however, the tragic walkway collapse marred Kansas City's new attraction. As thousands in the atrium swing-danced to the song, "Satin Doll," on July 17, 1981, the forth-floor walkway, along with the second-floor walkway that was suspended from it, collapsed without warning. Survivors later reported a brief period of awed silence following the collapse. Screams and general panic then spread as the dancers took in what had just happened. First responders worked throughout the night to recover the hundreds of victims who were trapped under the wreckage of the walkways.

A subsequent investigation uncovered serious design flaws that resulted from miscommunication between the engineering firm, Jack D. Gillum and Associates, and the Havens Steel construction company. The original design had called for sets of support rods to suspend the fourth and second floor walkways from the ceiling. Instead, the designs were changed so that a second set of rods hung the second floor walkway from the fourth floor walkway. This arrangement made the upper walkway support its own weight as well as the weight from the walkway below instead of suspending all of the weight directly from the stronger ceiling supports.

Finally, the rods holding the walkways were bolted into a box beam so that only a small nut and washer held the walkways to each rod. When the walkways collapsed, the rods had simply ripped through the walkways' box beams. Investigators noted that this design was far below Kansas City's existing building codes, yet it had passed inspection. In fact, the National Bureau of Standards later declared that the walkways could barely have supported their own weight, much less the weight of dozens of people.

As a result of the disaster, the engineers who had signed off on the plans lost their licenses. Jack D. Gillum and Associates also lost its engineering license, although no criminal charges were filed. The Kansas City Times and the Kansas City Star, then jointly-owned and operated, won a Pulitzer Prize for their outstanding coverage of the collapse, the aftermath, and the investigation. The Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., the owner of the hotel, paid over $140 million in legal claims to the victims or their families. And of course, the lives of thousands of friends and families of the victims were forever altered.

The final legacy of the walkway collapse is still undetermined. Among the thousands of people who were affected, many just wanted to forget the accident and move forward. Others want to be sure that the lessons learned from the collapse were not forgotten by engineers or the general public. Measured by loss of life, the event stands as the worst structural failure in American history. There is currently no memorial to honor the victims and those who responded to the catastrophe, and hotel guests can pass through the atrium without ever learning of what happened there. To fulfill this need for commemoration, the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, Inc. is working with the city to raise funding for such a memorial.

 

View image associated with the Hyatt Regency Hotel that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books about the Hyatt Regency disaster held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching the Hyatt Regency disaster using material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Rick Montgomery, Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 336-338.

Dirk Johnson, "For Many, a Memorial Long Overdue," Kansas City Journal (July 27, 2008).

William Earl Parrish, ed., A History Of Missouri: 1953 to 2003 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 77-78.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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Comments:

When was this article

When was this article published?

It was originally posted in

It was originally posted in July 2009.

We were in dental school, 3rd

We were in dental school, 3rd year. Alot of us worked part-time. Alot of our classmates dealt first hand as they were med-techs, etc. with the disaster victims. It was a horrible event and so sad. One of my friend had a sister injured seriously. The dental school still holds an annual convention at the Hyatt and I and alot of others think about the skywalk disaster almost every time we walk the previous structure.

My Buddy and I were listening

My Buddy and I were listening to KY102, and driving out to Olathe to go to a music club. We were just pulling up in front of it, when the radio announcer said there had been a terrible accident at the Hyatt Regency. We didn't hear of any other details till we were driving back home a few hours later. Many dead, and injured.

The next day, I learned the Father of one of my Shawnee Mission Northwest classmates, had been killed in the collapse. Seems almost everyone in the KC Metro area, knew someone who had been killed, or hurt.

I was babysitting for a

I was babysitting for a family from Raytown who were there. I had no idea what had happened until I received a phone call from the father, asking me if his wife had called. Of course I was confused, thinking "Aren't you together?" He gave a very hasty, equally vague explanation, saying they had gotten separated in an "accident". He gave me specific instructions to keep the phone lines clear, and if she called I was to assure her he was ok. It wasn't until the next day that I was made aware of the horror they had witnessed. I still thank God they were not taken from their children!!

Hyatt Skywalk collapse

My parents frequently attended the tea dances and had wanted my husband and me to go with them that night. My husband doesn't dance but they pointed out that we could observe from the skywalks. I wanted to go but couldn't interest my husband. My aunt and uncle and brother and his wife did go with them.

I'd forgotten about it until that evening, when my husband's fire dept. pager went off with a call for overtime. I turned on the t.v. to see what was going on at the Hyatt was about and was horrified to find out that the skywalks had collapsed. My husband was about to go out to the Hyatt when I reminded him that I had family there. We sat glued to the television, watching to see if any of our family members' names were listed. I remember the incongruity of the goofy commercials from local car dealerships and the like that punctuated the otherwise somber newscasts.

My parents and brother and sister-in-law made it out uninjured but my mother didn't think to call me until later in the evening to tell me that they were all right. I think she must have been in shock. She said they were taking an escalator down from a skywalk when they heard a loud noise and turned around to see it collapsing behind them. My aunt and uncle were buried in the rubble but both survived after being hospitalized.

Some of my husband's firefighter colleagues who did go to assist that night suffered post traumatic stress that haunted them for years.

I was living in Manhattan KS

I was living in Manhattan KS about 2 hrs west of KC. As a ham radio operator, on July 17 1981 at about 7:30PM I happened to hear a great deal of emergency calls coming through the KC ham radio repeater systems with injury information and requesting/directing ambulances. This was as we were leaving to go to a movie with friends and I thought it was an odd time for the KC ham operators to be holding an emergency disaster drill. It was only after we returned from the movie and saw reports of this awful disaster at the KC Hyatt Regency on the 10PM TV newscasts that I realized that what I had earlier been hearing was the actual tragedy unfolding live on the KC ham radio systems.

Hyatt Skywalk Collapse

I remember about 5 or 6 of us sitting at a table in a plaza bar the afternoon of the collapse. It was about 4pm and someone said, "Let's go to the Hyatt--they have those tea dances there." Someone else said, "No, it'll cost you an arm and a leg there." Little did we know how literal that was and how close we came to being there during that tragedy. I will never forget it. The people I was with? They were KC Police dispatchers who had finished their shift. One of the dispatchers wasn't with us--she was at work dispatching and had taken the call regarding the collapse. Her voice sounded like "disbelief" at what she was hearing.

They say that nearly everyone in Kansas City was somehow touched by the disaster that night. I didn't work at the police department-- but where I did work, a co-worker lost her sister and brother-in-law in the collapse.

Horror on a Summer Night

Newly arrived in KC that summer, I was returning downtown from dining with friends in Brookwood when I drove past the Hyatt and wondered why all the emergency vehicles were there. Only the previous week I'd sat in the lobby lounge having drinks with a friend and just a few hours earlier that night had changed my plans to go to out to dinner rather attending the tea dance. Like everyone else in town, I was stunned by the news of the collapse. We could only imagine the horror those who had anticipated nothing more than a pleasant evening dancing in elegant surroundings must have experienced. A few days later, a engineer friend who worked for Crown Center Development told me he'd been called in to work later that night, and after working 36 hours straight to help clear away the disaster wreckage, he was as traumatized as if he'd been in a war zone. His dreams were haunted for months afterward by what he had seen there. Of all the memories I took away with me when I left Kansas City later that year, the Hyatt was one, but an even stronger one was of the resilient spirit of the city's people to endure such tragedies and go on.

The Picture you have is not

The Picture you have is not of the Hyatt but of the Westin.

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