Thirty-four years later, a memorial to the victims, rescuers, survivors and families of Kansas City’s skywalk disaster will finally come to pass.
There will be congratulations as well as sad reflection when the Skywalk Memorial Foundation breaks ground for the memorial at 10 a.m. Friday in Hospital Hill Park, across the street from the former Hyatt Regency hotel where 114 people died in the collapse.
There has always been talk about creating a memorial, but efforts began to coalesce on the 25th anniversary. A design was unveiled on the 30th anniversary.
“It’s taken a long time, but things that are worthwhile sometimes take a lot of effort and I guess this is one of those things,” said Brent Wright, president of the memorial foundation, who lost his mother and stepfather in the disaster.
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Now the money has been raised to build the memorial at 22nd Street and Gillham Road, near Children’s Mercy Hospital, and it is expected to be completed by autumn.
The design was created by artist and Kansas City native Rita Blitt. It includes a 20-foot abstract sculpture atop a pedestal that may evoke, to some, a couple in a dancing embrace. Others may see in it a broken heart.
“I hope it gives them positive feelings, uplifting feelings,” Blitt told The Star on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the disaster.
It happened at 7:05 p.m. on July 17, 1981, during a popular live-music dance in the lobby of the then-still-new Hyatt. Two skywalks were suspended, one above the other, at the second- and fourth-floor levels. As scores of people looked down from the walks at the revelers below, the bolts holding the skywalks failed and more than 70 tons of concrete and steel came down.
Aside from the dead, more than 200 people were injured.
The suspension system was flawed and placed too much stress on the bolts. There were no criminal charges, but the engineers responsible lost their licenses. There were about $140 million in judgments and settlements.
Bill Quatman, a lawyer, architect and vice president of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, spoke Monday about the disaster and the mistakes made to about 250 engineering students and professionals at Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City.
Most of them were not even born when the skywalks fell.
“They were almost stunned to silence,” Quatman said. “Some of them have never heard of this before. We think it’s really important to understand what happened in this city 34 years ago. If they’re going to be in this profession they need to know the importance of attention to detail.”
Blitt donated her design for the memorial, and the Zahner sheet metal company is donating the fabrication, Quatman said. Other costs have shifted over the years, but the final construction bid was about $347,000 plus about $22,000 in other design fees.
In addition, the Parks and Recreation Department requires a maintenance endowment of $87,000. The memorial foundation remains about $50,000 shy of that amount, but it can be fulfilled in installments over four years.
“We’ve been determined to see this thing through and not give up the effort until it’s done, and now we’re at that point,” Quatman said. “We’re confident we can do it.”
Among the speakers scheduled Friday will be former Kansas City Mayor Dick Berkley, who remained at the Hyatt all that night, and Sol Koenigsberg, who survived the disaster along with his wife, Rosette.
Wright, a lawyer, can see the former Hyatt, now a Sheraton, and the memorial site from his office window.
“When I think about my mother and stepfather and their lives lost, it is a bittersweet moment,” Wright said. “I would bet she is looking down and I’d bet she’d be very proud.”