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Ceremony breaks ground for Hyatt skywalks memorial in Kansas City

Shelly Frank (right) of Ottawa, whose mother and stepfather were killed in the 1981 Hyatt skywalks collapse, hugged her mother’s friend Pat Clark of Shawnee at a ceremonial groundbreaking for a memorial.
Shelly Frank (right) of Ottawa, whose mother and stepfather were killed in the 1981 Hyatt skywalks collapse, hugged her mother’s friend Pat Clark of Shawnee at a ceremonial groundbreaking for a memorial. kmyers@kcstar.com

The memorial to the Hyatt skywalks disaster will sit on a hillside overlooking a downtown skyline that has changed significantly in the 34 years since the event changed Kansas City.

Survivors and others gathered Friday to ceremonially break ground for a memorial that for many has taken too long.

“Most people I’ve talked to remember where they were when that happened,” said Brent Wright, who lost his mother and stepfather in the skywalks collapse. “I know I do.”

The memorial to the Hyatt skywalks disaster will sit on a hillside overlooking a downtown skyline that has changed significantly in the 34 years since the event changed Kansas City. ( July 17, 2015 Video by Monty Davis/The Kansas City Star)

Wright, chairman of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, said it is intended for the emergency responders and volunteers as well as for the 114 people who died when the lobby skywalks fell that night.

“This memorial is a public recognition of your selfless dedication and your professionalism in an unimaginable situation,” he said. “You saved lives, you comforted those who were injured and you showed the kind of selfless spirit that Kansas City is known for.”

Survivor Sol Koenigsberg, 90, recalled having to talk his wife into attending the live-music dance at the former Hyatt Regency hotel. The band struck up “Satin Doll.”

“Just a few minutes later, everything became dark,” Koenigsberg said.

It was announced Friday that an anonymous donor had pledged $25,000 toward the memorial in Koenigsberg’s honor.

Koenigsberg asked how many in the audience of about 100 people had been at the Hyatt on July 17, 1981. Only a few hands went up.

“That’s why it’s important that we have a memorial,” he said.

Survivor Leonard Rose, 92, who was trapped for more than four hours between the lower and upper skywalks after they collapsed, also attended the ceremony.

“The simpler it is, I think the better it will be,” he said of the memorial.

A look back at the Hyatt skywalk collapse that killed 114 people on July 17, 1981.

An abstract sculpture of a couple embraced in dance was designed by Kansas City artist Rita Blitt and will be fabricated by A. Zahner Co. It is scheduled to be finished by autumn.

The memorial stems from the efforts of Frank Freeman, a survivor who picketed for one on the occasion of the 25th anniversary. He could not attend the groundbreaking.

“I am so glad the Skywalk Memorial is finally going to be built,” Freeman said in an email to The Star. “It has been a very long time coming. As the founder of the original board … I am very happy, yet it is bittersweet. Thank you to all those involved who saw this all the way through.”

The memorial site is in Hospital Hill Park at 22nd Street and Gillham Road. The former Hyatt hotel, now a Sheraton, looms across the street. That fact was not acknowledged during remarks at the groundbreaking.

“This memorial will provide a permanent healing place,” said parks and recreation commissioner Allen Dillingham.

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