Anguish of Hyatt Regency Hotel collapse reverberates 40 years after catastrophe

New book places in perspective one of America’s deadliest structural failures

By: - November 22, 2021 9:10 am
A new book examines the 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency Hotel's suspended walkways, which killed 114 people in Kansas City, Mo. The image shows the third floor walkway and remaining steel rods of the failed second and fourth floor skywalks. (Lee Lowery Jr. via Wikimedia Commons)

A new book examines the 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency Hotel’s suspended walkways, which killed 114 people in Kansas City, Mo. This image shows the third floor walkway and remaining steel rods of the failed second and fourth floor skywalks. (Lee Lowery Jr. via Wikimedia Commons)

TOPEKA — Trauma still grips survivors and first-responders exposed to the nightmare collapse of concrete, steel and glass skywalks in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel during a popular Friday evening big-band dance contest in Kansas City, Mo.

As many as 2,000 people were in the one-year-old hotel lobby for the weekly Tea Dance when inadequately engineered connecting rods gave way and dropped tons of material to the floor on July 17, 1981. Partygoers standing on the lower walkway and people on the lobby floor were crushed. The death toll climbed to 114. More than 200 were injured.

“It was like a bonfire of failures. Just a plethora of issues,” said Rick Serrano, author of the new book “Buried Truths and the Hyatt Skywalks.”

Serrano, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the disaster while at the Kansas City Star, said on the Kansas Reflector podcast he returned to the subject 40 years later to write a book examining how the collapse forced new construction standards, especially in terms of structural engineering, and exposed private management and public oversight shortcomings specific to the Hyatt.

The decision by Hallmark Cards, parent company of the hotel’s owner, to briskly settle legal claims rather than stand in the spotlight of a trial meant people harmed by the collapse were denied a comprehensive airing in court of all that went wrong, Serrano said.

“They still have their grievances,” he said. “You know, many of them, when they look back at it, they wish they hadn’t settled.”

The Hyatt Regency collapse was the deadliest non-deliberate structural failure in American history. It was the deadliest structural collapse in the United States before the airliner attack that brought down the World Trade Center towers in 2001.

Serrano’s work on the book, including interviews with 240 people, gave him access to a trove of 75 depositions and other evidence compiled in anticipation of a trial. He said the reporting made clearer the depth of mental wounds suffered by men and women who endured this tragedy. They absorbed that trauma in the summer of 1981, a time when the nation’s views of post-traumatic stress disorder had yet to be influenced by two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers and others who rushed to the scene discovered injured people were beyond their reach. Massive walkway pieces stacked one on top of the other were impossible to move without heavy equipment. Limbs had to be amputated to free some trapped in the rubble.

“There were people screaming under there and praying for help,” Serrano said. “The last thing you want to be in — a situation where you really can’t help somebody. And, so they came away with the alcoholism and drugs and divorce and depression. In some cases, suicide.”

He said damage was acute among to people who responded to the emergency and were sent back to work the next day without benefit of therapy or counseling.

In 1984, the structural engineering firm that worked on the Hyatt was found guilty of gross negligence and unprofessional conduct. Consensus developed that communication among companies responsible for planning and construction of the hotel was deeply flawed.

Warning signs of sloppy work also had been ignored, including collapse of a portion of the Hyatt’s atrium roof during construction in 1979. A section of the roof fell at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, timing that avoided harm to dozens of construction workers.

The decision in early 1979 to alter the system of steel rods suspending the skywalks was made without sufficient scrutiny — a deadly mistake. The revised plan used thin rods, giving the appearance of skywalks floating on air. One year after opening in 1980, the steel support system was splintering under the load. There was no evidence anyone bothered to look inside inspection panels installed to help monitor the connections.

In an instant in 1981, the fourth floor skywalk buckled and smashed into the second floor walkway. Both of the 120-foot-long skywalks plunged onto the crowd of dance contestants and observers on the atrium floor.

“Tremendous amount of noise,” Serrano said. “There was a water pipe that ran through the fourth floor skywalk and it burst. So, the lobby began to fill up with water. It was very, very chaotic. Horrific scene.”

In the aftermath, the National Bureau of Standards’ investigation pointed to structural overload resulting from design flaws of the hanger rods. NBS said the rods would have failed with only one-third of the occupants’ weight on the walkways.

The American Society of Civil Engineering adopted guidelines after the Hyatt catastrophe that established structural engineers were ultimately responsible for reviewing shop drawings for fabricator companies. The city’s code division became a standalone department and doubled its staff.

First responders and other health workers now benefit from routine treatment for PTSD and other psychological challenges after exposure to tragic events.

Serrano said he felt empathy for families of those killed and injured at the Hyatt who never heard courtroom confessionals about a project plagued by error for themselves .

“Somebody would have stood up and said, ‘I’m responsible. I made these changes. You know, I didn’t do this right. I was complacent,'” he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.