It has been 33 years since the skywalks fell at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on July 17, 1981. I ought to know, I was there with my wife and three relatives. As I approach my 92nd birthday I wonder when Kansas Citians will finally come together, as they did that dreadful night, to make a memorial for the victims and rescuers a reality.
I grew up a Kansas farm boy, made my living in sales, traveling all over Kansas and Missouri selling financial equipment. My wife and I decided to go down to the Hyatt tea dances to see what the fuss was all about. We soon found out that these were the fanciest society dances in town. I would attend only two.
That night my wife, her sister and brother-in-law and his sister all went to the second floor so we could have a cocktail and look down and watch people dance. I noticed that something didn’t feel right and thought to myself, “This is spooky. We have to get off of here.” But it was too late. We felt the skywalk shake and then down it fell. You can’t imagine what it was like.
I was underneath the rubble for 4 1/2 hours. I didn’t lose my mentality or my breath, but the only thing I could move was my right hand, which was up over my left shoulder close to my forehead. I could touch my brother-in-law’s sister’s head. As I heard her cries and the moans of many others I told her, “It will all be over soon.” Her crying stopped and so did the noises. After that, in total darkness, all we heard were rescuers.
I had two experiences of my life leaving my body. It’s like the system you have been taught about your whole existence concerning life and love — floating off to heaven. Unless you have experienced it, it’s hard to understand. I thought I was dying. When they got me out I had no idea where my wife was, nor would I find out for three days. As I lay on the gurney, a young Catholic priest asked my name and how I was doing? I told him I didn’t think I was going to live. He put one hand on my heart and one on my head as he read me my last rites. Again, you can’t imagine what that is like.
But I did live, as did my wife. Bones were broken in every part of my body from my shoulders down to my toes. My wife suffered a broken right shoulder blade. But unfortunately for my family, all three other family members with us perished. My wife and I were so injured we could not even attend their funerals. Our family’s loss, I believe, was the most people from one family. My wife and I went on to celebrate 66 years of marriage until her passing earlier this year.
One of my passions now as I reflect on my life is to help make sure that Kansas City never forgets what happened that night. Other than 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, it is the largest building catastrophe in America with the loss of 114 people and hundreds more injured. That night all the emergency medical personnel, hospitals, blood banks, heavy equipment operators and volunteers worked together as the nation watched. I’d like to see Kansas City do that again.
Leonard Rose, of Johnson County, told his story to Heather McMichael, who handles communication for the Skywalk Memorial Foundation. For more information about the foundation go to skywalkmemorial.org/.