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Published July 17, 2020

Whether you dance like a pro, or just tap your foot, there’s something about music that makes people want to move. It’s an instinct as old as humanity itself.

But was moving to the rhythm behind a tragedy that killed more than a hundred people?

francesca-grima-j6RZqTuqltY-unsplash.jpg
Source: Unsplash

The Hyatt Regency Kansas City Hotel was opened on the first of July, 1980. It was a striking modern building with 45 storeys, standing 504 feet or 153.62 metres tall, making it, at the time, the tallest building in the state of Missouri. It boasted a revolving restaurant at the top, but the bottom of the building was just as impressive – the atrium was a big open space, four storeys tall, with big glass windows creating plenty of light, and three walkways across it, on the second, third and fourth floors. The second and fourth floor walkways were suspended one above the other, close to the windows, with the third floor walkway offset a little way further into the building. 

Michael Mahoney, a reporter for local channel KMBC, said, “Your first impression was this large, open, airy space, and these skywalks seemingly suspended in air, and people went, wow!”

It quickly became a popular spot for events, including a regular tea dance on Friday evenings, with a big band playing 1940’s standards, couples competing to be the best dancers, colourful balloons and four bars. 

On Friday the 17th of July, 1981, just over a year after the hotel opened, the atrium was crowded with partygoers at one of those tea dances. Hundreds had dressed up for the occasion and were now mingling happily, queuing at the bars for a drink, or stepping out onto the dancefloor with numbers pinned to their back for the contest. Others made their way onto the skywalks, where they could enjoy a birds eye view of the dancers.

Walter Trueblood and his wife Shirley were amongst the spectators on the second floor walkway; they were regulars at the tea dance and had been given free drinks tickets for that evening, which ensured their presence. He would later tell interviewers for the documentary series Seconds From Disaster, “I never turned down a free martini in my life.” 

Dalton Grant was less keen to be there; he was eleven years old and could probably have thought of a million things he’d rather do with his Friday evening, but as he said later, “My parents wanted to go to it, so they dragged the kids along.” He and his mother were on the ground floor, heading to the bar for some drinks. 

Mahoney was there on business that night, accompanied by a cameraman to film some footage for a lighthearted feature. After filming amongst the dancers, they took the escalator up to the second floor restaurant, where they found a good viewpoint to shoot from. The camera was running out of power, so they paused filming for a few moments. The band had just returned from their break, and were starting to play for the dance contest. Mahoney said later;

“At that point Dave was setting up his shot, and I reached over into our camera bag to get some fresh batteries. I heard this real sharp metallic, POP, POP! And it was a sound that was so foreign to the environment that I immediately looked up.”

On the walkway, the Truebloods were also startled, but not just by a noise. “There was a loud pop and the floor dropped about 16 inches. I took Shirley’s arm and said I think we oughta step off. We took about three steps.”

They didn’t have enough time to leave the walkway before it, and the one above it, dropped to the ground.

Mahoney said, “I was directly on level with the second walkway, and the second walkway began to sag, and it took just a few seconds but it seemed like forever at the moment, it sorta sagged down and then all of a sudden it just dropped.”

Everyone who had been beneath the walkways was now trapped beneath some 65 tons of steel, concrete and broken glass; those who had, like the Truebloods, been on the second floor walkway were sandwiched between it and the fourth floor skywalk. Walter could move just enough to remove his tie, hoping that would make it easier to breathe. He and his wife were able to comfort each other until they were rescued; they couldn’t touch, but they could speak to each other.

Chuck Hayes was half trapped, his legs buried beneath debris. He could no longer see his wife Jayne. Chuck later told the documentary series, “Minute By Minute”, “After the crash, there was just an eerie calm. There were no screams, no nothing, it seemed like for an eternity. One by one you could hear the cries for help.”

Tom Weir was completely buried. He said, “It was pitch black and it was just excruciating pain. My first thought was that the entire hotel had collapsed…  My left leg was up across my chest next to my head, my head was sideways on the floor and I never hurt so much in my life.”

Like Chuck, he didn’t know where his wife was.

Mark Williams had been waiting to be served at the bar, and was now twisted into an almost inconceivable position, in a space not much bigger than the average suitcase.

“My left leg was up behind my head and up here behind my right ear, My right leg was torn out of the socket and was also laying back up here, behind me, so both of the legs are bent behind me and are up behind my head.”

Those who had escaped without serious injury now placed frantic calls to the emergency services, and attempted to help however they could. It was not a scene that any of them would forget easily.

Mahoney said, “It was an awful scene, it was just terrible, there were people that were cut badly, there were people that were mutilated, there were people that had had limbs amputated, and there were people that had been trapped underneath these walkways, either smashed to the ground or sandwiched in between, and so it was a gruesome scene.”

KCFD chief Arnet Williams was shocked when he received the call. “I couldn’t fathom that this would ever happen. This was the newest structure, I think, in Kansas at that time and one of the most modern.”

A makeshift medical treatment centre quickly replaced the hotel’s taxi rank, and a makeshift morgue was established in the lobby. It was immediately evident that there were multiple fatalities, but the full scale of the tragedy wouldn’t be known for hours.

It was also immediately clear that it would not be an easy rescue, by any means. The huge slabs of concrete were so heavy that they would need better equipment to move them. Roy L. Campbell, one of the fire fighters on the scene, told an ABC News special report at the time:

“I remember crying because I hurt so bad inside not being able to do more with what I had.The horror struck me as I seen people laying there smashed underneath these tons of steel and knowing that we probably would not be able to lift it with what equipment we had.”

The scene was traumatic for everyone who was there. 

Chuck Hayes remembered looking around him as the water “turned from grey to a murky red, which was blood.”

Joe Galettis, media liaison for the KCFD, recalled, “I could see all these bodies protruding from the edges of the skywalks and it was a shock, it was a real shock.”

There would be difficult decisions ahead for the rescuers, not least for Dr Joe Waelecke, an emergency room physician who took charge inside the hotel.

“You really have to collect your presence for a moment, take what resources are currently available and give those to the people that we think have the best chance of survival, and the other people we have to basically say, you need to make your peace with your god because there’s nothing I can do right now.”

Another immediate problem came in the form of gallons of water; pipes had been broken during the collapse, and a steady flow was filling the atrium. Many of those trapped, including Mark Williams, Tom Weir, and eleven year old Dalton Grant, felt the water rising around them.

Williams said later, “I’m starting to breathe the water into my nose and I remember thinking to myself, I’m on one of the highest points in the city of Kansas City and I’m gonna drown to death.”

Weir struggled to hold his head out of the rising water; he told interviewers later, “What I would do was suck in a mouthful of water and try to raise my head, spit it out, get a breath of air and then put my head back down again.”

Fortunately, Fire Chief Williams recognised the danger; the doors of the hotel were holding the water in, allowing it to rise, so they were either opened or smashed open with bulldozers to let the water out. 

Two hours after the initial collapse, rescuers were finally close to pulling the Truebloods out; 

Shirley later recalled, “They had been talking with us, and I told them, I said, I feel like I’m about to faint, would that be bad? And I remember him saying, oh lady, please hang on, he said, I’m almost there.”

Others faced a longer wait, and while trapped in the suffocating darkness despair was all too close. 

Tom Weir called out for his wife, Regina. “I heard her voice say, Tom Weir, and at that point that was all that mattered. I think that probably was one of the saving graces of willingness on my part to do whatever I could to stay alive because she was alive.” 

Chuck Hayes was pinned beneath a piece of the fourth floor walkway which had not completely fallen down; it remained balanced precariously against the wall. His wife Jayne was buried completely nearby. Although she had been able to respond to his calls for a while, she had passed out from her injuries.

“I can remember one of the firemen saying, this thing’s gonna go and it’s gonna crush everybody under here, so you say a quiet prayer and you prepare yourself to die.”

Mark Williams said, “I knew the people around me were dead. I mean I knew instantly, I won’t go into how I knew but it was, I knew.”

He was, for a while, able to speak to a little girl who was trapped nearby. 

“I asked her her name and how she was doing, she said, well I’m, I hurt pretty bad, and I said, well I heard you saying your prayers, I said does that make you feel better, and she said yeah, and I said would you like me to say some prayers with you and she said I would like that…  She was a very coherent and very sweet intelligent little girl, I wish I had a chance to meet her.” 

This might perhaps have been eleven-year-old Pamela Coffey; she was the youngest person named on the list of the dead.

Still, Williams didn’t despair; he recalled a different emotion. “I’m getting mad, you know, why isn’t somebody lifting this stuff off me, that’s, I’d be organising a group of people to lift this off of me.”

Above, of course, that is precisely what the rescuers were doing. Construction workers were brought in, armed with jackhammers. They attempted to break the concrete slabs into smaller pieces that could be lifted with the available equipment, or used their equipment to make holes through which survivors could be dragged out. This was, in itself, risky; one of those jack hammer operators, named as “Country Bill” Allman, told ABC news “We was jackhammering over their heads. And when we was jackhammering over their heads they was yelling out that I’m down here and you’re jackhammering over our heads.” 

Construction workers. Source: Unsplash

The large windows of the atrium were smashed so that a crane could be brought in to lift the concrete. From beneath the wreckage, Dalton Grant heard, “The initial smash of those things hitting the building and then the glass I remember just sounded like rain.”

The crane was able to lift the precariously balanced piece of walkway where Chuck Hayes was trapped, and he was finally released.

“When I was pulled out my hands had constricted around a man’s shoe. That shoe had to be pried out of my hands and in that shoe was a foot and an ankle, and those are things you never ever forget.”

His wife Jayne was also extricated; her injuries were so severe that she was given last rites before they were both rushed to hospital. She required urgent surgery because she had suffered “total body collapse”; her ribs had been pressed down to her hips, resulting in serious internal injuries, in addition to crushed vertebrae, broken ribs, broken hips and a broken left leg. She remained in critical care on a day to day prognosis for some time. However, in the end, Chuck remained in hospital longer; he had two crushed vertebrae and the lower bones of both legs had been crushed. When he left hospital at the end of November, just in time for Thanksgiving, he was the last of those injured at the Hyatt Regency to do so.

Dalton Grant and his mother were finally located when rescuers at last heard his voice. He said later, “I was screaming, I was belting some good ones out. This firefighter heard me screaming, he went down into the rubble as close as he could to talk to me and he would tell me everything they were doing.”

When interviewed by ABC News at the time, several of the firefighters were visibly emotional when they spoke about this particular rescue.

Michael Trader told reporters, “He was completely enclosed in concrete and steel, there was maybe at most an inch between the steel and the floor on the bottom…I lay down and started talking to him, explaining what was going on, what we were doing so he wouldn’t be scared, try to calm him down and ask him his name and how old he was and he told me he was 11 years old and it struck me at the time because my own son is 11.” Overcome, Trader walked away from the cameras for a moment before returning. “It was pretty bad down there.”

When Dalton and his mother were released, the rescuers burst into spontaneous applause.

Roy Campbell said, “We just applauded, I don’t understand why but we applauded, it was so exhilarating that just one life saved, after all the bodies that we’d seen, this is another life that was saved.”

From hospital, Dalton spoke to reporters. 

“My foot was caught under the balcony, it was about 3 tons on one foot and the other foot was um being pushed down by the bottom of the balcony and I couldn’t stretch it out because there was a corpse right under it…I was just saying mom are we gonna die and I didn’t know what to do and I thought we  were gonna die…It was really scary because I couldn’t actually see the bodies I could just feel the wet hair on the lady and the guys shoe and his ankle was really wet and I didn’t know if it was blood or water. “

The wait for rescue was too long for some. Tom Weir recalled how many of those trapped near him hadn’t made it.

“They called down and said, is anyone down here, and a number of us called up, so I said, let’s count off and I think at the first count there were 11 or 12 people… I think we did it three times and I think there was 11 or 12 the first time and then maybe 7 the second time.”

He had been under the rubble for some eight hours by the time he was released. 

Getting survivors out required, at times, extreme measures. Dr Waeckerle revealed that in some cases, he had to dismember deceased victims in order to get past them to the living.

Rescuers had all but given up on finding any more survivors by the time they reached Mark Williams. 

“I heard the voice and I yelled back, hey I’m underneath here! And they heard me and then I remember that voice saying, my god there’s somebody alive!”

As they broke the concrete to get to him, the use of jackhammers again proved risky.

“First time they ran the jackhammer in, it came under my arm and between my ribs, and the next time they ran the jackhammer through it came between my legs, and so now I’m thinking to myself, the next one’s gonna come right through my back, and I’m yelling and screaming out and saying don’t run that jackhammer in here again.”

Fortunately, they did realise where he was, and he was pulled out. Ray Wynn, one of the firefighters there, said, “I’m like wow, this guy’s alive! I was happy. Happy as hell to see him.”

It was 4:30 in the morning; more than nine hours after the collapse.

However, with his back broken and his kidneys failing, his chances did not look good. He was rushed to hospital immediately.

“I do remember laying there and my mother asked the doctor, is he gonna live? And the doctor said, I don’t think he’s gonna make it. I sat up and I said like hell I’m not gonna make it, I’m gonna be hunting ducks on October 27th when the season opens.”

He later admitted that it was a little embarrassing that, rather than thinking of his family, he had been thinking about duck hunting, but that appeared to be the impetus he needed to recover. Sure enough, when the duck season opened, he did make it out – although he needed his physical therapist to carry him out there. Eventually, he would be able to walk unaided again. 

Not everyone was so lucky. Jeff Durham, a 26 year old bartender, was in such a dire condition that his leg needed to be amputated at the scene if there was any chance he was to live.  Dr Waeckerle described the scene in a news interview;

“I made the decision that the man would not live much longer and that if he wanted to have a chance to live we were going to have to take his leg off…I said, your leg is not salvageable probably, even if we could get it off of you, and I don’t know if we can get you out and you’re not going to live otherwise and I have to help some other people so why don’t you think about that.

A bystander was called upon to hold the IV drips put into Durham’s arms; he told the same news report, “ I never dreamed that I could stand and watch a man’s leg being cut off.” 

Sadly, the effort was in vain; Durham died from his injuries.

Mortgage broker Frank Freeman had been at the dance with his boyfriend, Roger Grigsby. When the skywalks fell, Freeman was hit on the back and shoulder by debris, but survived by a hair’s breadth. “When it was all said and done, I was facing the catwalks and the toes of my shoes were just barely touching the catwalks on the floor.”

Later, in hospital, he was shown a photograph of a body which matched Grigsby’s description. 

“And he didn’t look… he didn’t look like he’d been hit with anything. I mean, he had no cuts, there’re no bruises, looks like he was just laying there sleeping and I said, what happened, and he had a broken neck.”

In total, 114 people were killed in the disaster; more than two hundred suffered serious injuries. 

The question was, why? How had a structure so new, so modern, suffered such a catastrophic failure?

Kansas City Mayor, Richard Berkley, asked the National Bureau of Standards, or NBS, a federal agency, to investigate the collapse. Edward Pfrang was appointed as the lead investigator.

Normally such an investigation would start with an examination of the scene, and the wreckage. However, they were dismayed to find, upon arriving in Kansas City, that all of the wreckage had been removed from the atrium and put into private storage. The hotel’s owners apparently wanted their own examinations to be made first. 

Pfrang said, “We were shocked to have it removed and very disappointed.”

It would take twelve days before a court granted them access to the wreckage. In the meantime, they would have to begin elsewhere.

One of the first theories put forward was that the walkways had been overcrowded. An unnamed witness told TV reporters, “They were encouraging people to dance in the walkways, they just said, use the entire lobby as a dancefloor which everybody was doing.”

Pat Foley, the president of Hyatt Hotels dismissed this idea. “The catwalks are designed to hold people shoulder to shoulder, as many as you can jam on there.”

NBS investigators were able to disprove this theory without recourse to the wreckage, because they had the footage taken by Michael Mahoney and his cameraman. Since the skywalks were such an impressive feature of the atrium, they had featured clearly in multiple shots. The investigators could count exactly how many people were on the walkways; 40 on the second floor, and 23 on the fourth floor. A fair few, but nothing like the kind of crowd that could be held responsible for a collapse. 

A second theory, though, related not so much to the number of people on the walkways, but how they were moving. It was, after all, a tea dance. 

Every structure has a particular frequency at which it vibrates; if it’s exposed to an external force at the same frequency, that vibration will increase, and the resulting stress could result in the structure breaking. So, the theory went, if the people on the skywalks were dancing at the particular frequency of the skywalks, they could have effectively wobbled it to pieces. 

A famous example of this phenomenon is the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, sometimes known as “Galloping Gertie”. It was also the source of early problems with the pedestrian Millennium Bridge in London.

By examining the still intact third floor walkway, the investigators established that the frequency of the walkways was approximately 7.1 Hz.

According to the official report;

“Although no reference to actual measurements of dynamic excitation associated with dancing could be found in the literature… a recording of the music being played at the time of the collapse was analyzed and the tempo corresponds to a treading frequency of about 1.1 Hz…

Based upon this brief analysis, it does not appear that dancing involving a reasonable number of walkway occupants would give rise to steady state oscillations that would warrant a more detailed analysis.”

Although the NBS investigators could rule out these theories, they wouldn’t be able to draw any firm conclusions without examining the evidence.

In the meantime, though, another investigation was underway. Structural engineer Wayne Lishka had been approached by the Kansas City Star to look into the Hyatt tragedy on their behalf. Unlike the official investigators, the press had been able to see the wreckage before it was removed – albeit from a distance. Lishka, accompanied by a photographer with a telephoto lens, had been among them.

The observations and photographs from that day, combined with the building plans held by City Hall, allowed Lishka to reach a startling conclusion.

A set of hanger rods, attached to the ceiling and extending down to the level of the fourth-floor walkway, caught his eye. They had obviously been the supports for the walkway, and since they were intact and the walkway was not, that connection appeared to be the point of failure.

However, the building plans showed one set of long hanger rods, extending from the ceiling all the way down to the level of the second-floor walkway, and carrying both the second and fourth floor walkways.

Lishka said later, “I was shocked at that point in time. It literally only took seconds to realise that what was on the plans and what was built in the field were not the same thing.”

He was also able to work out how those hanger rods were connected. Each walkway had a number of box beams going across them, width-ways, and the hanger rods were connected to each end of the box beams.

Those box beams were, in turn, constructed by placing two steel channels, each shaped like a square bracket, toe to toe, and welding them along the edges where they met. Lishka later demonstrated this on Seconds From Disaster;

“Normally if you wanted to make a walkway out of two channels, what they would have done is turn them back to back and taken the rod and put it in between. On the Hyatt what they did is they took two channels and they turned them toe to toe, and then they welded them to form a box beam. Welding the two pieces together makes it very weak, right, right through here… Putting two channels toe-to-toe is a ludicrous way to do it . It was then and is now.”

This was apparently done because the Hyatt architects wanted box beams for aesthetic reasons.

In the original design, each of the box beams would have transferred its load directly to the hanger rods. Each beam, therefore, only needed to carry its share of the load.

However, what had actually been built was different, and it would have handled the load differently as well.

The hanger rods from the ceiling were attached to the fourth floor walkway’s box beams, running through the beam, with a nut and washer on the bottom to hold them in place.

Then, offset by four inches or 102mm, a second set of hanger rods were attached, extending from the box beams of the fourth floor walkway to those of the second floor walkway. Again, a nut and washer at each end held them secure.

This meant that the load from the second floor box beams would be transferred first to the lower set of hanger rods, then to the fourth-floor box beams, and then to the upper set of hanger rods.

The fourth-floor box beams were therefore not only carrying their own load, but also the load of the second floor walkway beneath.

On the 21st of July, 1981 – just four days after the tragedy – Lishka’s findings were published by the Kansas City Star under the headline, “Critical design change is linked to collapse of Hyatt’s sky walks”.

When the NBS investigators eventually got access to the wreckage on July 29th, they reached similar conclusions. 

Pfrang said, “Well, just looking at the box beams, you know, you have to shake your head and say, I sure wouldn’t do it that way.”

The investigators located the connection points for the fourth floor walkway, and it was clear to see that the welded points had folded inwards at the bottom. This was where the hanger rods from the ceiling were connected; when the points gave way, the hanger rods – in many cases, with the nut and washer still intact on the bottom – pulled straight through and allowed the fourth floor walkway to drop. Since the second floor walkway was attached to the fourth, it obviously fell as well. 

Unlike Lishka, the NBS investigators were able to run a series of tests on the materials and the designs involved. Their report is very technical, and includes page after page of figures and tables – but essentially, there are just three important figures.

Firstly, the forces that the skywalks were supposed to withstand, in order to comply with building regulations. 

There are two forces involved – the “dead load”, which is based on the weight of the structure itself, and the “live load”, which is based on the maximum expected weight of the people using the skywalks, and any furniture set out upon them, etc. In total, for the fourth floor walkway connections, this would be 40.7 kips – a kip being a unit of 1000 lbs force – or 181 kN. Then, a factor of safety should have been applied, at minimum 1.67, meaning that the skywalk connections should have been designed to withstand 68 kips or 302 kN

Secondly, the NBS investigators calculated the actual forces that those connections would have been under on the evening that they collapsed.

Using the estimate of 63 people taken from the KMBC video, and an average weight of 159 lbs or 72 kg for an average adult, the investigators were able to come to a rough figure for the live load; they could also work out where this load would have been carried based on the positions of the people seen in the video. Particular attention was paid to one connection, designated location 8UE.

“Of the 6 fourth floor box beam-hanger rod connections, the connection at location 8UE was the most heavily loaded. The estimated dead load action at location 8UE is 18.9 kips (84 kN) and the contribution of the upper-bound live load at the time of collapse is 2.5 kips (11 kN), resulting in a total load of 21.4 kips (95 kN).

And finally, based on the design, the materials, and the workmanship, the maximum forces that the skywalks could actually have sustained:

“The average ultimate capacity of the 6 fourth floor walkway connections is estimated to have been 18.6 kips (83 kN)

They also calculated what forces the original design would have taken:

“For the continuous hanger rod arrangement, the design load to be transferred to each hanger rod at the second and fourth floor levels would have been approximately 20.3 kips (90 kN)… a box beam-hanger rod connection designed in accordance with the AISC specification would be expected to provide an ultimate capacity of at least 33.9 kips (151 kN).”

In summary, they noted:

“The maximum load acting on a fourth floor box beam-hanger rod connection at the time of collapse was 53 percent of what was required for design under the Kansas City Building Code…

Each of the 6 fourth floor box beam-hanger rod connections had a high probability of failure; each connection was a candidate for initiation of walkway collapse.

Failure of any one of the fourth floor box beam-hanger rod connections would have been accompanied by a redistribution or transfer of load to other hangers. With no apparent significant reserve capacity to accommodate this redistribution, progressive failure of the remaining connections was assured. Thus, failure of any one connection would have led to complete collapse of the walkway system…

Had the change in hanger rod arrangement not been made, the third floor walkway would have been the most critical of the three.”

What is most shocking about these results is that they make it clear that it was not really the design change which made the Hyatt Regency’s skywalks dangerous.

The design change led directly to the forces being too much on that evening; by effectively doubling the forces on the fourth floor walkway’s connection, it precipitated the collapse as it happened. But even if it had not been made, the skywalks would still have been at risk. They would not have been able to withstand the forces they were expected to, and could have fallen at some other time. 

As Pfrang said later, “From the day that they were put up, they were a disaster waiting to happen.”

This led, of course, to the most important question of all – how did such a flawed design make it off the drawing board?

That comes down to one of the most common issues you’ll find in any large-scale project – communication. 

The structural engineers in charge of the project were Jack D. Gillum and Associates (also known as G.C.E. – they changed their name in 1983); they created the original design, but did not make any load calculations. They passed contract drawings onto Haven Steel, the fabricators. 

They in turn translated the contract drawings into shop drawings – and it was at this point that the change to the hanger rods was prompted. Haven Steel pointed out that it would be very difficult to construct on site, and there would be difficulties making hanger rods that were 14m long to start with. They made new drawings showing the design with two sets of hanger rods, it was signed off at Jack D. Gillum and Associates, and then constructed.

But Haven Steel had not made any load-bearing calculations, either on the original design or the changed one, and none were made on the new design at Jack D. Gillum and Associates before it was signed off.

Later court testimony revealed that it was a case of everybody thinking somebody else had done it, meaning that nobody did it.

Paul Spinden, professor of law at Liberty University, was at the time serving in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, and headed the prosecution of the engineers. In a video for the ASCE later, he said:

“Missouri law, we thought, was very clear that when an engineer takes upon an engineering project and places his seal upon that project, he is taking full responsibility for all engineering aspects of that job unless he is very clear to communicate to others that he’s not doing that, and in this case there was no such qualification, there was no reservation by the engineer.”

There was even another chance for the mistake to be caught. During construction of the hotel, a section of the roof had collapsed. As a result of the investigation into that collapse, Spinden said, Jack Gillum’s firm was asked to recheck all the connections.

“At a later meeting there was reassurance given to the architect and to the owner that indeed that had occurred, that Gregg Luth at Jack Gillum and Associates had gone over the entire building and had looked at the steel to steel connections, including the bridges, specifically said including the bridges, the walkways that spanned the atrium, and we have checked those connections for compliance, and in fact that was not done, it was an untruth and it was a missed opportunity to realise that no calculation had been done on the bridge connections.” 

They had, in fact, only made spot checks and simply hadn’t included the bridges in this. When asked why, they apparently said they would have done more, but they weren’t being paid.

In November, 1984, G.C.E, and the two engineers involved, Jack Gillum and Dan Duncan, were found guilty of gross negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering. 

The firm’s certificate of authority was revoked, and both Gillum and Duncan had their licenses to practice engineering in the state of Missouri revoked.

Gillum accepted this responsibility; he later admitted that the design flaw was so obvious, “Any first-year engineering student could figure it out.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the design of the hotel atrium was changed significantly. 

Spinden said, “Being leery of depending upon structural engineers to be able to suspend bridges by one and one quarter of an inch rods the owner decided that to regain any kind of confidence in the public for his hotel that he would have to replace those bridges, those suspended bridges, with bridges that rested upon columns that, not only they were big round columns that went to the floor, but that went through the floor and went all the way down to bedrock. I’m not even certain an earthquake would take out the bridges today.”

The hotel reopened just 75 days after the tragedy.

There were more than 300 civil lawsuits, with the total damages sought adding up to some three billion dollars. At least $140 million was awarded to victims and their families, although for some the legal proceedings were drawn out by Hyatt claiming that the awards were excessive. 

Regulatory changes also followed; not to the building criteria, since the Hyatt’s skywalks would have been safe if they had actually been designed and built to those standards, but to clarify exactly where responsibility lay so that such an error could not occur again.

The disaster became a case study for engineers and first responders, ensuring that lessons would be learnt not only from what went wrong but also what went right. 

In the 39 years that have passed since that deadly evening, there have probably been thousands of travellers passing through that atrium without the slightest clue that they walked over the site of such a tragedy. Of course, it would not be the sort of thing that a hotel would want to remind guests of, and since 2011 it has been part of the Sheraton hotel chain, which was not involved at the time.

However, in 2015, a memorial was finally established in Hospital Hill Park, across the street from the hotel. The sculpture is an abstract representation of a couple dancing, evoking the joy that the victims went there for, rather than the tragedy they suffered. 

The memorial was paid for by donations raised by a dedicated group which included survivors, family members of the victims and first responders from that evening. Hallmark Cards donated $25,000, because at the time of the collapse the hotel was managed by a subsidiary of Hallmark. Some reports stated that Hyatt declined to donate, on the grounds that the hotel was now under the management of Sheraton; other reports say both Hyatt and Sheraton contributed. 

The names of the victims are listed on the memorial, although this was itself not without controversy as several were later found to have been mis-spelt. 

For many of the survivors, it was a long path to any kind of recovery, and feelings towards those ultimately responsible were mixed. 

Chuck Hayes said, when he learned how the collapse had come about, “I was angry, after what I read, what I saw. There were no systems of checks and balances. That is unforgivable.”

Tom Weir, meanwhile, said, “We hold no animosity, no bitterness, towards any of those folks. Their lives were shattered too. They live day in and day out with the understanding that because of a mistake terrible things happened. And I feel for them. It was a mistake, that’s all it was.”


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Sources, References and Further Reading

(will be added soon – sorry for delay)

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