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46 killed in Hyatt collapse as tea dance turns to terror

DATE OF EVENT: Friday, July 17, 1981

DATE PUBLISHED: Saturday, July 18, 1981, in The Kansas City Times

Editor’s note: The new Hyatt Regency hotel was the host of one of its popular Friday tea dances when two of its skywalks crashed into the lobby.

As the newspaper went to press, the full scope of the tragedy was yet unknown. Eventually, 114 persons would die and 200 would be injured in the most deadly structural failure in American engineering history.

Within four days of the disaster, a professional engineer hired by the newspaper identified the design change that led to the tragedy.

Originally, two skywalks were designed to hang, one above the other, from the ceiling by six suspension rods. Because of difficulty in fabricating, the plans were changed to allow the second-floor skywalk to hang from the fourth floor walkway instead of the ceiling. This grossly increased the stress on the welded steel box beams that made up the higher walkway, leading to the collapse.

Coverage of the disaster and its causes would win a Pulitzer Prize for The Star and The Times.

A quiet evening of tea dancing in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel erupted into chaos and terror Friday night when a four-story-high walkway in the lobby collapsed, killing at least 46 persons and injuring at least 82 others.

Dozens of early evening revelers were catapulted into the air at 7:05 p.m. as the walkway collapsed onto a second-floor walkway directly beneath it. That too collapsed, trapping spectators between tons of tangled metal and crumbled concrete.

The number of dead seemed certain to increase as firefighters and other rescue workers worked feverishly with pickaxes, shovels and their hands to rescue people still trapped beneath the mass of broken glass and steel of the fallen walkways.

Police spokesman Sgt. Jim Treece said early this morning that there were still bodies inside the building in addition to the 46 already confirmed dead.

Shortly after 2 this morning, rescuers removed three more injured persons from the rubble. They were described as a boy 12 to 13 years old, a man in his 30s and a woman who was said to be in poor condition.

Treece said he thought there still were four persons trapped in the rubble, but rescuers had heard no sound from them for some time.

“This is the worst disaster I can recall in my 25 years-plus as a police officer,” said Kansas City Police Chief Norman A. Caron. “The closest thing I can recall to compare to this, God forbid, was Korea.”

At about 10:30 p.m. the police moved a crowd of about 2,000 people from the western front of the 40-story luxury hotel which only opened its doors July 1, 1980, as two cranes … moved in.

The cranes were to be used to inch the collapsed walkways up enough to reach the dead and injured.

Shortly before midnight, Caron said, 16 persons were believed to still be trapped beneath the debris, most believed to be dead. Seven were believed to be alive, however, and rescuers were using small tubes to get oxygen to them.

A temporary morgue was set up in the parking garage of the hotel. Dozens of injured were whisked away in ambulances, helicopters, taxis and private vehicles. By 11 p.m., 18 bodies had been taken to the morgue at Truman Medical Center. Names of the dead were not being released until relatives could be notified. …

The blood bank at 4040 Main was engulfed by Kansas Citians wanting to give blood for the injured, and a massive traffic jam was created. …

Near the south end of the lobby, where the remnants of the walkway angled off the wall to the floor, firefighters used chain saws to hack through the debris and 18-inch steel I-beams. Sparks flew and small fires erupted, but they were quickly doused.

Six crushed bodies lay beneath that section of the walkway. One sobbing man flailed his arms in efforts to free himself. He was pinned from the waist down and was beneath a body that separated him from the I-beams.

His cries of, “Oh my God, get this off me please!” sent off a chorus of howls and moans from further beneath the wreckage.

Less than 20 yards away, near the east wall of the lower-lobby floor, rested a large makeshift pallet that bore seven bodies. The body of a middle-aged man was dumped unceremoniously on the pallet by rescue workers who did not have time for ceremony. And then that body too was covered with a water-soaked white sheet, and the scene was all but forgotten. … Hotel workers, members of the media, any person in the hotel before the police cut off access to all but rescue personnel, helped carry the injured to safety. …

Friends and relatives of those known to have been in the hotel at the time of the collapse stood outside in silent shock or cried desperately and shied away when others tried to offer aid. …

A priest, too busy to identify himself, walked among the dead, carrying a Bible and blessing and absolving the bodies, regardless of faith.

“It’s impossible to know who they are or what they are,” the priest said. …

Kansas City Mayor Richard L. Berkley said at the scene, “There is no excuse for that happening in a virtually new building.”

“Obviously, we have a major fault of some kind,” Berkley said. “We’ll make sure there are corrections in the building code if there are failures in the code. We will certainly have a thorough, comprehensive investigation.”

This story was written by Mike DeArmond with additional information supplied by Mack Alexander, Tim Weiner and Tom Ramstack. All are members of the staff of The Kansas City Times.

Critical design change is linked to collapse of Hyatt’s sky walks

DATE PUBLISHED: Thursday, July 21, 1981, in The Kansas City Star

By Rick Alm and Thomas G. Watts

A critical change in the original design of the Hyatt Regency hotel’s sky walks doubled the stress on that part of the walks that later pulled apart during the collapse, The Star has found.

City records — in combination with visual examination by two experts and photographic evidence — reveal that, at some point, a change was made that doubled the stress on three steel “box beams” supporting the fourth-floor sky walk.

It was those beams that tore downward and away from their ceiling-anchored moorings, and both that walkway and a second-story walkway hanging below plummeted to the hotel lobby.

However, one of the experts — a structural engineer hired by The Star — cautioned that it is not yet possible to determine whether that tearing failure was the primary cause of the collapse, or merely one in a chain of structural failures. But it is clearly significant, he said.

The original design plans were revealed today when city officials made all Hyatt construction records available for inspection, including the specifications for the project and the construction plans.

Those records and the altered design, as constructed, were studied by Wayne Lischka, a structural engineer retained by the newspaper in the wake of Friday’s tragedy. The Star consulted another engineer who had viewed the wreckage after the accident and later was shown close-up photos of the damaged sky bridges.

The second engineer asked that his name not be used for fear that he would be ostracized by the local architectural community — that it would affect his business.

Once the design change was made, Lischka explained, the box beams beneath the top walkway were required not only to support its weight but also that of the second-floor sky bridge, 30 feet below. Each sky bridge has been calculated to weight about 65,000 pounds — or almost the weight of a loaded semitruck.

After examining the original design blueprints on file at city hall, and close-up photographs of the collapsed sky walk debris, Lischka determined that the box beams under the top sky bridge tore away from nuts that were on the lower ends of steel suspension rods that still remain anchored in the ceiling. …

The original hotel architects’ plans — approved by city officials in the fall of 1978 — called for six suspension rods, anchored in the ceiling, three to each side, to hold both sky walks aloft.

The base construction of the walkways looks something like a ladder with three rungs — with long steel I-beams making the sides of the ladder and shorter steel beams making the rungs. The shorter “rung” beams — which ran the width of the walkways — were attached to long steel rods which were in turn affixed to the ceiling of the lobby.

It was at the point where these long rods attached to the “rung” beams that the tearing took place. Under the original plans, the rods would have gone from the ceiling through the fourth-floor walkway and continued to the side beams at the bottom of the second-floor walkway.

That was changed sometime during construction so that no rod connected the top walkway to the ceiling, then another rod connected that walkway to the lower one. …