From the archives: Surviving the Hyatt skywalk disaster

Hyatt Skywalk Collapse | A Tragedy Remembered

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

This story originally ran in Star Magazine on July 10, 2011

“The Last Dance: The Skywalks Disaster and a City Changed” marks the 30th anniversary of the Hyatt Regency skywalks collapse on July 17, 1981. The book, produced by Kansas City Star Books in partnership with the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, explores what happened, the lessons learned and, in an excerpt here, the effects of the tragedy on victims and their families and their rescuers.

Thirty years is a long time to live in the shadow of a tragedy.

Those who survived the collapse of the Hyatt skywalks or who treated victims or lost a loved one have managed in their own ways to move on from that night.

But for many, it has not been easy.

Some escaped death, only to live a life of physical or emotional pain that challenged their spirits and altered the course of their lives.

Some who were heroes wished deeply that they had never had the chance to be one.

Others chose not to talk about the event for years or to this day flinch at loud noises or glance warily upward when entering some buildings.

In fact, a whole community has not been quite the same since that summer night in 1981.

“It’s taken a toll,” said Charley Fisher, former Kansas City fire chief who was deputy chief on the night of the Hyatt disaster.”Thousands of peoples’ lives were changed forever.”

Every one of those people has a different story to tell about that night and the long aftermath.

Ed Bailey is a Hyatt survivor whose brush with death forever taught him that life is fleeting. Bailey and his date, Shelley McQueeny, were watching the dancers that night when the skywalks came crashing down on top of them.

Had they been standing a foot away they might have been killed instantly. Bailey has always felt he got a new lease on life that night. Ever since, he has not taken it for granted.

“You are here one minute and gone the next,” Bailey said.”You are not promised tomorrow.”

Bailey and McQueeny were among only a few people pulled alive from under the bottom skywalk. Their injuries were serious. He had two crushed ankles, a fractured hip and ruptured discs. She suffered back, pelvis and leg fractures.

In casts and bandages, Bailey and McQueeny recovered together at the hospital and later at her home for many long months. They bonded, drew closer and married. But it turned out their shared experience wasn’t enough to make a strong marriage. They divorced after about two years.

Bailey practiced law in Kansas City and Independence for years before retiring to Hot Springs, Ark., and then to southern Texas. McQueeny, who already suffered from a serious lung disease at the time of the skywalks collapse, was a health care worker before her injuries. She stayed in Kansas City but never returned to work.

For the first five years, Bailey couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches or a cane. He still suffers pain in his shoulder. McQueeny said she is in constant pain.

Bailey said he was puzzled and angry that he and others suffered because the design flaw was not detected.

“When you walk into a new building, you don’t expect it to fall on your head,” Bailey said.

McQueeny resents what she thinks was the rush to complete construction of the Hyatt in the interest of money over safety. But she said she has never felt sorry for herself.

“People have problems, things happen,” McQueeny said.”Maybe it’s not fair that these things happened to me. But that’s the way life is. I’m not bitter.”

Bailey said he has never dwelled on that night but hasn’t hidden his feelings, either.

“I’ve always been able to talk about it,” he said.

Some people, however, dealt with emotional scars of that evening by not talking about it at all. For years, even with others who were there that night.

John and Marie Driscoll of Lee’s Summit were at the Hyatt with three other couples. None of them was injured, but they witnessed the skywalks fall to the floor, crushing dozens of people.

Over the years, the couples would socialize frequently, but John Driscoll said the topic of the Hyatt never came up in conversation. Maybe it was just too painful.

“I could not talk about it myself for a long time,” said Driscoll, retired from General Motors.”Sometimes I would think about it at work, and tears would come to my eyes. I thought about all those people, dressed up, happy and having a good time. It’s something I will never forget, and it’s like it was yesterday.”

Mike Falder, who was one of the first firefighters on the scene that night, gave lectures around the country for several years about the response to the collapse and lessons learned. But eventually revisiting such a painful night wasn’t worth it emotionally.

“Between lectures, I put everything away, and then I’d have to take it out, talk about it and show the slides,” Falder said.

About 20 years ago, he finally told Fire Chief Charley Fisher,”I’m not going to do it anymore.” The experience also diminished his interest in seeking a promotion to battalion chief, he said.

Falder, now retired, didn’t want to talk about that night for this book. He had relived it enough.

“I put it away years ago,” Falder said.

Firefighters, police, emergency medical workers, construction crews and others who helped rescue victims that night were widely commended -- none more so, perhaps, than Joseph Waeckerle.

An emergency medical doctor, Waeckerle worked all night at the Hyatt and supervised the triage. He treated and consoled patients and made tough choices on who should be treated and who was beyond help.

Waeckerle got a lot of recognition, appeared in national newsmagazines and on programs such as the”Today” show.

But while finding himself portrayed as a hero, Waeckerle wished he had never been put into that position.

“That was probably harder for me to deal with than the event itself,” Waeckerle said.”All those people had to die for me to be recognized.”

In the months that followed the disaster, he frequently got calls from rescue workers, including a man who had operated a jackhammer to reach trapped victims. They just wanted to talk through their feelings with him, Waeckerle said.

“It was a brotherhood of people who shared an experience,” he said.”A bonding occurs when you go through this.”

Waeckerle in recent years has practiced sports injury medicine, specializing in concussions and other brain trauma. He is a consultant for the NFL and the NFL Players Association, as well as high school athletic programs.

The Hyatt experience still resurrects anger, he said.

“It was an unnecessary tragedy had people done their jobs,” Waeckerle said.

Sally Firestone feels the same way.

Firestone was the most seriously injured of the Hyatt survivors. She had gone to the tea dance with three friends and was on the second-level skywalk when it collapsed. Firestone lay unconscious and didn’t come to until she was in the hospital two hours after the collapse.

After three months in the intensive care unit and four months at a rehabilitation hospital, she returned to her second-floor walk-up apartment. Wheelchair-accessible housing was scarce in 1982. An adaptable apartment space was found, and she returned to her job for a few years.

Firestone, 64, has spent her life since the accident using a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. She requires assistance and lives in a senior living community in south Kansas City. She doesn’t harbor bitterness but is disappointed that flaws in the skywalk design got past engineers and other professionals.

“There were a number of checks along the way where it should have been caught,” Firestone said.”I wish building inspectors would have done their jobs properly.”

Firestone said she has made the best of her life with the help of family and friends. She has been active on boards and committees of nonprofit organizations such as Kansas City Academy and St. Paul School of Theology, as well as her church, Central United Methodist.

Firestone has also served on the advisory committee for the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City and reStart Inc., an interfaith ministry that provides shelter and services for the homeless.

For Frank Freeman, pain is a perpetual reminder of that night at the Hyatt.

The Kansas City businessman suffered injuries to discs in his neck and lower back when the falling skywalks grazed him and killed his partner, Roger Grigsby.

Freeman suffered for years before finally getting surgery in 2005, when doctors put two metal plates, six metal pins and four cadaver bones along vertebrae in his neck. The surgery came on the heels of a heart attack in 2004, he said. Discs in his neck and spine still need repair.

Beside surgery, he used neck stretchers, electrode treatments and so many different kinds of medication that he finally quit because they disoriented him to the point where”I didn’t know if I was coming or going.”

Freeman said pain is the price he pays for giving up medication.

“When the pain increased, I just told myself I’m going to have to live with it.”

He also struggled for years with guilt about so narrowly escaping death when Grigsby and so many others died.

“Why me?” he would ask himself.”I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here.”

Freeman said the passing years gradually erased his guilt, but not his anger. He remains upset, and not just about the design flaws that caused the collapse. He is still angry that a court order was required for investigators to examine the skywalk pieces, which were stored in a warehouse after the collapse.

Hallmark Inc. owned the building. The day after the collapse, Hallmark president Donald J. Hall issued a statement calling the prior 18 hours”the darkest of my life” and expressing his compassion and grief over what happened.

But Freeman has wanted something more from Hallmark officials all these years.

“I never heard an apology,” he said.”Neither Hallmark nor the Hyatt ever issued any kind of statement in that regard.”

Freeman said he would not buy a Hallmark card and returned any he received to the sender, a position he held for 28 years, until 2009, when Hallmark donated $25,000 to a fund to build a memorial to victims and rescue crews.

Hallmark, too, has suffered from the tragedy, said Steve Doyal, senior vice president for public affairs and communication, in a statement for this book.

“The skywalks collapse was a tragedy for everyone involved and all of Kansas City,” Doyal said.”For Hallmark and our employees, two of whom were killed, the loss was shattering, as was the realization of its devastating impact on the lives of so many in our city.”

In a 2009 book commemorating Hallmark’s 100th anniversary, Hall and former Hallmark general counsel Charles Egan reflected on the Hyatt disaster and the legal aftermath. Hall said that battles with insurance companies and emotional negotiations with victims weighed heavily upon him.

“I was tired,” he is quoted in the Hallmark book.”It was demolishing.”

While the cause of the collapse was traced to the design flaws, Hallmark agreed to admit liability and to fund settlements reported at more than $140 million.

“We have deep empathy for those whose lives were forever changed that night in 1981,” Doyal said,”and hope that Hallmark’s actions to address their needs as quickly as possible in the days and months that followed reflect our concern for what they experienced.”

Freeman said Doyal’s recent statements were important in demonstrating the Hall family’s sense of grief and empathy.

“That is the best statement I have heard out of the Halls,” Freeman said.”At least they acknowledged those killed and the devastating impact on the lives of so many in our city.”

Of all the survivors of the Hyatt collapse, Mark Williams had perhaps the most harrowing experience.

Williams, 34 at the time, was trapped under the bottom skywalk, his legs spread in the splits and pulled out of their hip sockets. First he was almost crushed to death. Then, water from a broken pipe edged up just beneath his mouth before receding. Finally, rescuers almost pierced him with a jackhammer.

Williams was the last person pulled alive from under the skywalks, 9 1/2 hours after the collapse.

He said he always thought he would live through the experience. He has kept the same sturdy outlook over the past 30 years, despite his injuries, which left him without the use of his left foot and only partial use of his right foot.

“It changed me for the better,” Williams said.”I found out more of what I was made of and maybe became not so self-centered. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Most people are never tested, so they never find out what they can be.”

Few people could find humor in injuries they suffered in the skywalk, but Sol Koenigsberg has managed to do so.

After suffering a broken back and leg in the skywalks collapse, Koenigsberg said, the most lasting physical effect 30 years later is knowing when rainy weather is on the way because his back acts up.

“I’m a good long-range weather forecaster,” he says.”I can tell 24 to 48 hours in advance if the pressure is dropping.”

When a storm arrives, it is his wife, Rosette, who suffers. She received only minor injuries in the collapse, but thunderstorms cause her to scream, he said. She is also startled by other unexpected sounds. Sol tries to be quiet around the house.

“After 30 years, she can’t bear sudden noises, especially ones she can’t identify,” he said.

Among victims of the Hyatt tragedy are relatives of those who died. Thousands of people lost mothers, fathers, siblings, children and other loved ones in the skywalks collapse.

Cathy Pitts of Wamego, Kan., has missed her mother for the past 30 years, but the heartbreak was especially strong a few years ago when she turned 53 -- the age of her mom when she died at the Hyatt.

“It hit me hard,” Pitts said.”It’s not that old.”

Laurette and Ray Glover of Merriam, her parents, had gone to prior tea dances and were there with another couple, Robert and Mary Torrey of Roeland Park, on the night of the collapse.

Pitts said she was deeply affected by the death of her parents, particularly the loss of her mother, who was a teacher at Milburn Junior High School in Overland Park. When Pitts was older and experiencing personal problems, she missed the important counsel and support from her parents.

“It definitely changed the direction of my life,” she said.

Pitts said the tragedy also made her more of a worrier and protective of her son as he was growing up.

“So many people don’t think things will happen to them,” she said.”I knew that anything could happen. It changed the way I look at everything.”

The Hyatt tragedy dealt some families a blow from which they never fully recovered.

“Quite honestly, it destroyed my life,” said Peggy Olson, who was an adult when she lost her father, Gerald Coffey, and 11-year-old sister, Pamela Coffey, in the skywalks collapse.”It actually messed up our whole family.”

Olson said that until a couple of years ago she could not even talk about their deaths without getting very emotional. Her mother still can’t bear talking about it, Olson said.

Pamela Coffey was the youngest person killed at the Hyatt. Her parents were divorced, and that Friday night was her dad’s turn to spend time with her. He decided to take her to the dance, but no one in the family knew until after reports of the skywalks collapse, Olson said.

“What I tell people all the time is that I think it’s harder when you have someone die suddenly than if they were sick for a while,” Olson said.”If they were sick, you at least had time to make amends, to talk about issues and resolve things.”

Olson struggled not only with grief but anger, which built to a point that on the 25th anniversary of the collapse she wrote emails to architects and engineers responsible for the skywalk design. She asked how they could live with themselves all these years. She never heard back.

Olson has donated annually to a fund to build a memorial to remember the victims and pay tribute to rescue crews that night. She has heard that some people think that families of the victims should have funded a memorial out of settlement proceeds.

That is another thing that makes her angry.

“I’ve really struggled with that,” Olson said.”We didn’t get a lot of money, and even if we did, it’s not about money. There is no price you can put on a family member’s life.”

If there was one person thrilled that the Hyatt started tea dances featuring big band music, Tom Henson was the guy.

“His only passion in life was big band music,” said his daughter, Dorey DePuy.”He had 300 or 400 albums -- Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, the Ink Spots.”

Saturday morning was always Tommy Dorsey and pancakes at the Henson household, DePuy said. Henson was a very quiet man and had only one real friend, but the big band tunes brought him to life, she said.

DePuy grew up in a family of five children, which her father raised by himself after a divorce. He married again. Henson and his second wife, Romelia Henson, were at the tea dance when the skywalks fell. They were both killed. Every bone in Tom Henson’s body was broken, the family learned. The Independence couple had one child of their own, a son, Joshua, 2 1/2 years old. DePuy was 21 at the time.

DePuy thought her dad’s death was both tragic and ironic in that he died while enjoying big band music --”doing what I only knew him to do.” He was 46 when he died; his wife, 29.

When DePuy was asked to identify his body that night from a Polaroid photograph, she was stunned to see that his face was swollen but not bloody.

“He was very peaceful-looking,” DePuy recalled.”I’ve never seen him look so peaceful.”

In the 30 years since his death, DePuy has been unable to escape the memory of how her dad and stepmother died. She works as a surgical instrument technician at Children’s Mercy Hospital just up the street from the Hyatt and previously worked for 15 years at Waddell & Reed down the street in the other direction.

Every major work function seemed to be at the Hyatt, she said, resurrecting her disgust that her dad, stepmother and so many other people died unnecessarily.

“It was just sickening,” she said.”Every time I went in there I wanted to spit on the floor. I am not that kind of person, and I didn’t do it, but I wanted to.”

Today, DePuy passes the Hyatt every day in a shuttle bus to work at Children’s Mercy. Somehow, time has made the presence of the building less disconcerting. She thinks less about her dad’s and stepmother’s deaths and more about their lives.

“After these 30 years, I remember fondly the way they were,” DePuy said.”It’s bittersweet.”

All royalties from the sale of”The Last Dance: The Skywalks Disaster and a City Changed,” published by Kansas City Star Books, go to help the Skywalk Memorial Foundation fund a permanent memorial to the tragedy. Books are available at the Kansas City Store in Union Station, online at www.TheKansasCityStore.com, or at area bookstores.

The book’s authors include, in addition to Kevin Murphy, Rick Alm and Carol Powers.