Learning From Loss

When disaster struck the Hyatt Regency Crown Center on July 17, 1981, the community watched in horror. Yet so many details weren’t available at the time, and nobody realized the ripples of change this event would send through national and local architectural, engineering and emergency response communities.

In a new 146-page book, The Last Dance: The Skywalks Disaster and a City Changed, Kevin Murphy and co-authors, Rick Alm and Carol Powers, offer five chapters: Prelude to Disaster, Then the Music Stopped, What Went Wrong, Lessons Learned and Lives Changed Forever.

Dozens of black and white photographs add depth and poignancy, while ‘before’ and ‘after’ lobby diagrams illustrate the physical failure and chaos of that night. A three-page police log provides excruciating detail, and individual profiles of people who were injured, lost loved ones, or miraculously decided not to attend that evening, personalizing the tragedy.

Despite nearly 11 percent nationwide inflation, 7 percent unemployment, and a recession that appeared imminent, Hallmark executives spearheaded the Crown Center development during the late 1960s. By 1980, the 40-story Hyatt Regency Crown Center Hotel opened in the Crown Center neighborhood with three thin and ‘invisible’ suspended walkways spanning its magnificent lobby.

On July 17, 1981, fifteen hundred people crowded the new space, enjoying a Friday night tea dance, until the skywalks collapsed with a deafening crash, creating the worst loss of life from structural failure in U.S. history. One hundred fourteen people died, and hundreds more were seriously injured. Rescue operations took 13 hours and hundreds of people, with personnel from 17 area hospitals assisting the wounded. A police officer said the carnage reminded him of Vietnam.

Twists and turns abound throughout the 30-year saga following the collapse of the skywalks. Even before the disaster, some people had wondered about the skywalks’ stability. In the disaster aftermath, Alm and other KC Star/Times reporters poured over 100,000 pages of construction documents and 15,000 pages of court-ordered depositions and created The Hyatt Papers, which received a 1982 Pulitzer Prize.

Amazingly enough, local building inspectors had spent less than 19 hours assessing the new structure. Initial architectural plans did not match final construction. One design change led to the suspension of the engineers’ licenses in 26 states, and a National Bureau of Standards site review generated building code modifications across the nation in the years following the collapse.

The Hyatt disaster also changed local disaster response. Professional rescuers, volunteers and media must now wear ID tags. A dedicated phone line informs relatives, and firefighters receive training for emergency medical care, haz-mat and other rescue situations. Victims and witnesses may seek counseling in their own time, and two-way communication with hospitals determines their readiness.

But personal stories perhaps leave the most indelible impression. One survivor still screams when she hears loud noises and another found the loss of her 53-year-old mother especially hard when she reached her own 53rd birthday. Alm initially had a sense of being the only living thing in the lobby and KCMO radio reporter, Dan Verbeck, never wore his Florscheim shoes again.

The Last Dance illustrates how much Kansas Citians lost through this devastating tragedy, and the positive changes that emerged after it occurred.

 

Q & A WITH LEAD AUTHOR, KEVIN MURPHY

 

435 South: July 17 was the 30th anniversary of the Hyatt skywalks collapse and the book released in early July. Were there other reasons to write it now?

Kevin Murphy: A book had never been done on this before and [the event was] never chronicled before.

 

435: How much time did it take to complete?

KM: Around eight months, after Doug Weaver and some others at the Star came up with the idea.

 

435: How and why did you become involved?

KM: I left the Star in 2008 and told them I was available, if they ever wanted help writing a book. I thought it was a meaningful project but I hadn’t really delved into it in any great depth before.

 

435: Which was the most difficult chapter for you to write?

KM: The first chapter was the most difficult. It was more challenging to combine facts and quotes from back then and now.

 

435: How did you decide which individual profiles to include?

KM: The Star ran a small ad on its Web site and in the newspaper and after talking to [people who responded] I decided how to use their input. We wanted to include a variety of people and experiences. Some people that I wanted to talk to didn’t want to re-live it, and some were still very angry about what happened.

 

435: What did you learn from doing this project?

KM: The wrong place, wrong time part of it. I was also struck by the tireless effort of people who worked there all night long, putting their emotions aside so they could get it done.

 

435: What lessons do you want readers to come away with?

KM: Realizing what an unusual and tragic time this was for Kansas City, and how it has changed so many lives since then.

 

All royalties from The Last Dance will benefit the nonprofit Skywalk Memorial Foundation, which will build a memorial at 22nd Street and Gillham Rd. To learn more, visit https://www.thekansascitystore.com/productDetail.php?PID=1422 and/or skywalk.kansascity.com.

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