A chill wind swept Hospital Hill Park on Thursday morning during a recitation of the names of the 114 people who were killed when the skywalks fell at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City.
That was in 1981, but 34 years doesn’t seem so long ago when the pain is this big, this personal.
“This was the moment in history that wrenched innocent loved ones from our arms and not our hearts,” survivor Frank Freeman said at the dedication of a memorial for those who died, those who survived, those who helped and those who lost loved ones. “Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, sisters, brothers, friends, spouses and lovers — all were gone in an instant. Gone. Just gone. How could that be?”
The memorial site at 22nd Street and Gillham Road is in the shadow of the former Hyatt Regency, now a Sheraton hotel.
The names of the victims are etched in the memorial, the centerpiece of which is a 20-foot abstract sculpture of a couple embraced in dance. The disaster happened during a big band dance contest.
“They gathered there for a Friday night tea dance,” said Brent Wright, who lost his mother and stepfather, Karen and Eugene Jeter. “They were looking forward to a night of music, dancing, fun with family and friends, and instead that night turned into disaster and tragedy. Twenty-five years later, a small group of people sat down and began to discuss the possibility of a memorial to the events of that night.
“Today, with patience, faith, determination and your help, we’ve made that possibility a reality.”
The dedication drew about 200 people, many of whom came from across the country. John Sullivan brought his 11-year-old daughter, Kathryn. She was born on the birthday of her grandmother, who died at the Hyatt, and was named after her.
Sullivan, a lawyer, moved to Dallas in part to get away from constantly seeing the Hyatt in the Kansas City skyline.
Sullivan thought it odd that his parents were not at their Blue Springs home that night. He was seeing news of the skywalk collapse on television. His dad’s friend phoned to say he thought Sullivan’s folks had gone down to the Hyatt.
“I was 24,” Sullivan recalls. “It was an ominous feeling of horrible fear. A paralyzing, gripping thing.”
Freeman, Wright and Sullivan were among a core group of people who have worked with determination to get a memorial built.
Freeman lost his partner, Roger Grigsby, at the Hyatt and was angry about the lack of a memorial. He suspected civic and business interests in Kansas City were working to thwart plans for one. But Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., whose property included the Hyatt, denied that. The Hallmark Corporate Foundation, the Hyatt corporation and the city of Kansas City each donated money to the project, and the Parks and Recreation Department made a patch of park land available for the memorial.
In all, more than 300 donors made cash or in-kind contributions to the nonprofit Skywalk Memorial Foundation. But it took nearly 10 years to raise $550,000 for the memorial and a maintenance endowment. Foundation board members attribute some of that difficulty to the recession.
Another foundation board member, Vince Ortega, was the first police officer dispatched to the Hyatt that night.
“When I arrived at the scene, there was nothing in the academy training that could have prepared me or any other first responder,” Ortega said Thursday, adding that the disaster is now a case study for emergency training.
It is also a cautionary tale for engineering students. The skywalks were 120-foot walkways suspended one above the other in the lobby of the hotel. Because of an untested design change, the lower one was suspended from the upper one. That doubled the weight load — more than 70 tons — on the box beams to which the steel rods were attached.
Some people were looking down from the skywalks that night, but many more were clustered near the bar underneath them when, at 7:05 p.m., the support system failed. The skywalks pancaked onto the floor.
Jack Gillum and Daniel Duncan lost their engineering licenses, but no one was prosecuted. Lawsuits resulted in about $140 million in judgments and settlements.
Karla Woodward, who lost her mother, Kathleen Wilber, said the opening prayer at Thursday’s dedication ceremony overlooking the downtown skyline.
“Bless this place of peace and hope,” she said.
Mayor Sly James said the response to the Hyatt disaster was an example of how Kansas City comes together in times of sorrow as well as joy.
“This is a memorial that needs to be here,” James said. “Every time you pass it, whether on foot or by car, look at it and remember what happened 34 years ago in this city.”