On July 17, 1981, my wife, Rosette, and I decided to go to the tea dance at the new Crown Center Hyatt Hotel. A dance contest began at 7 p.m. We chose to stand under the skywalk to watch. Steve Miller’s band began to play “Satin Doll.” At 7:03 p.m. everything went dark. Everyone under the skywalk was buried under debris. I heard screams, moans and the sound of pouring water.
Rosette crawled out from under the debris. She cried out, “Where is my husband? Where is my husband?” My shoes were spotted emerging from the concrete chunks that covered me. We were placed together on the sidewalk. A photograph was taken of the two of us holding hands. That photo, taken by a Kansas City Star photographer, was published nationally and internationally.
Rosette was a refugee in her native France. Her father was captured and spent five years in a German POW camp. She, along with her mother, two siblings and aunts, fled their city of Nancy, France and sought refuge in the town of Tulle in central France. En route their train was attacked. They left the train and cowered in a ditch.
They spent the war years in an unfinished attic. When the Germans occupied Tulle, Jewish refugees had to be vigilant, as they were being picked up to be sent to concentration camps. Rosette’s younger brother and sister were sheltered in a nearby convent. She escaped many roundups and was terrified by the threat of being captured. Her mother died of cancer. Rosette was on her own at the age of 13.
Rosette never fully recovered from the shock of the skywalk collapse. Combined with her experience as a refugee, she suffered with post-traumatic distress disorder. Any noise startled her. If I approached her from behind, she would scream. She had nightmares virtually every night reliving the skywalks disaster and what she went through under German occupation.
We survived, but 114 others did not. The media reported on the victims and details of what took place for weeks. More than 200 people were also injured, some never fully recovered. This construction failure resulted in the worst building disaster in our county’s history.
A foundation was formed to have a memorial to the victims and first responders. I became a member of the foundation board and joined with founders Frank Freeman, William Quatman, John Sullivan and Brent Wright, and with board members Kathy Hardee, Amy Kessler, Heather McMichael, and Vince Ortega. Former Mayor Dick Berkley became Honorary Chairman. It has taken commitment and tenacity to successfully finish the campaign to fund the memorial. Kansas City approved the plan and also donated generously as did the city of Overland Park. A large number of individuals contributed as well as a few corporations.
The memorial, at 22nd Street and Gilham Road, is a reality dedicated last Thursday. Victims and first responders were recognized and the tragic event of the skywalk collapse will be remembered for all time. Many have grieved. Many have cared. Now we can be comforted that this tragedy will be remembered. We can and we will live with the memories of that fateful day.
Sol Koenigsberg lives in Mission Hills. firstname.lastname@example.org