The Day I Almost Became an Orphan
The Kansas City Hyatt Regency Collapse of 1981
Part One: The Party
July 17, 1981
The Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, MO was holding its ever popular weekly Tea Dance from 5pm-8pm that Friday the 17th. It would be a day that would be forever cemented in Kansas City and national history as the largest structure failure in the nation until the horrific events of 9/11. This event also served as an eternal reminder to me of how your life can change forever in a matter of seconds.
This collapse killed 114 people and injured 216 other partygoers. These people, their friends and their families will forever be changed by the catastrophic events of that one solitary evening. The partygoers planned for an evening of drinking, dancing and socializing. But what they got was far worse than any of them could have ever imagined.
The Hyatt Regency Hotel first opened July 1, 1980. It was a grand hotel, designed to attract visitors from near and far and create a sense of awe to those who walked through its heavy glass double doors. Set in the booming and high class Crown Center area, this forty story hotel was the creation of dreams and luxury. It included three suspended walkways that each overlooked the hotel lobby, two of which backed up against large glass windows on the west side of the building to allow partygoers to see the lights and wonders of Crown Center lit up at night as well have an elevated view of the party or event happening. The lobby contained a multi-story atrium that was to be the main view from the suspended walkways overhead.
This lobby was designed to be one of the biggest defining features and the central highlight of this grand and extravagant hotel. The lobby was the set for lavish parties, an array of events and of course, the weekly Friday night Tea Dance, playing both the role of hotel lobby and grand ballroom. At the south end of the large room was the live band, playing every toe-tapping tune they knew and working some slow dances in from time to time to appease the romantics in the crowd. To the east of the lobby was the Terrace Restaurant. Directly in the center of this elaborate and opulent chamber was the lounge area, set up for visitors and guests to relax comfortably on beautiful furniture while they sipped at their drink they had gotten from the lobby bar directly west of the lounge. Off behind the bar was the Alcove area where partygoers would stand and people watch and converse amongst themselves as others danced and mingled around the room. This Alcove area was directly under the second and fourth floor suspended walkways while the third floor walkway was offset and more out to the side of the other two, the staggering set up giving great eye appeal for visitors and guests who wanted to see the bigger picture of the event at the time.
So picture this:
It’s Friday night in mid-July in Kansas City, 1981. Temperature is a balmy 85 degrees, having had a slight bit of rain that afternoon had made the air a little heavy and humid. You're off work and ready to start your weekend.
You’re going to the weekly Friday night Tea Dance in the city’s newest and grandest hotel.
You walk into the hotel through the main entrance on the north side of the building. As soon as you enter you are practically on the dance floor. To the left (East) of the entrance is the lobby area itself. It includes three walk up bars strategically placed for attendee convenience and lounge seating for guests to sit and socialize, remember this is practically in the center of the great room. On the south wall the live band is playing music for the guests to dance to. Above the dance floor is the second floor skywalk and directly above that is the fourth floor skywalk. Remember the third floor skywalk is off to the east slightly so the skywalks are not all stacked on top of each other. Only two and four are situated one directly and completely over the other. The skywalks are all identical in width and length. They were designed to be used as observation towers for the guests, making it an area of social appeal and interest. The west wall is all glass windows to aide in the observation experience.
The dance begins at 5pm.
You walk into the party and make your way to the bar to order a drink for you and your friends that are with you for the evening . You laugh, dance, socialize, drink and enjoy the fun and fantastic music and the whole ambiance of the environment as you make your way around the different areas of the lobby. You take advantage of the observation skywalks and look out over the party below.
You spend the evening taking in and enjoying the atmosphere. The night has been one of laughter, music, fun and friends.
All of a sudden you here this unfathomably loud cracking snapping popping type sound. It’s so loud it stops everything. Then, without warning, you are bombarded with a wave of air, enough to tackle you to the floor. The massive force of air is riddled with a mixture of materials. Concrete dust and debris, shards of glass and metal, all flying through the air at amazing, baffling speeds from the pure force behind them.
There is a brief moment of complete silence as you try to get your bearings, but that is soon quickly broken by the sound of anguished cries and blood curdling scream. Followed by more heart wrenching desperate demands for help, loved ones, even air. What follows is panic and shock filling the newly damage filled air covered in debris and blood and death. And soon the inevitable realization of your own mortality.
Once you get your faculties and senses back, your eyes focused, you realize the lobby now looks as if a bomb had gone off inside it. What was only just minutes before a joyous and festive environment now resembled something of the aftermath in a warzone.
You’ve been there just about two hours. And in a matter of minutes you are practically entombed in the rubble of calamity. Concrete is all over you, on top of you, around you. You can hear other people screaming. Screaming for help. Screaming in pain. People who were not standing where you were seem to be calling out to people they know, looking for them among the wreckage. You can’t move. The concrete and steel are mangled around you, over you, on you, prevent you from making any attempt at getting loose on your own. Your head is feeling light and dizzy. You are in so much pain it’s almost as if your body has been overloaded and barely even registers agonizing destruction of your limbs and torso. But little do you know that you will be buried under this rubble and in deadly crisis for well over twelve hours, as the catastrophe has only just begun and the rescue effort hasn’t even started yet. You wonder how long you will make it. You wonder if you’ll make it all.
This is the very position hundreds of people are now in, along with you. You are all trapped under the very building you were just dancing and drinking in. Two skywalks along with approximately one hundred-fifty guests are now buried under the rubble of this grand lobby in this luxurious hotel.
Time seems to stand still and you are left to wonder, what comes next?
Stay tuned to find out! More articles to come! Thanks for reading!
Images of The Hyatt prior to collapse, 1981
The Countess of the Crypt