The Hyatt Regency Collapse of 1981 Part Three: The Aftermath
After all the victims had been cleared from the scene and taken to the hospital, after the press and onlookers had all cleared out and after the actual dust had settled and adrenaline had died down, the real investigation started. Yes, the “missing stiffeners” had originally and immediately been identified as the reason for the collapse. But what is that and more importantly, how could something like this have happened? Is there not a system of checks and balances in place to prevent such catastrophes? Well…there is now.
It's hard to determine where to start when explaining what went so cataclysmically wrong in this situation. I suppose the easiest answer would be to first explain the “missing stiffeners” that Gillum first said was the cause of the collapse, because honestly, the language isn’t very clear unless you look around a bit.
You will see from the image that what he is actually referring to are the box beams and the connections they encase. The original design called for one long steel support rod to go from ceiling to the bottom of the second-floor skywalk, running through each walkway and basically having reinforcing bolts to secure the position and weight load at the bottom of the box beam at each intersection of walkway and this rod. This was to be in multiple places along the sides of the skywalk. The idea was to make the skywalks appear to be floating in mid-air and visitors of the hotel would be given a grand visual experience when using these walkways to observe the large lavish lobby below. It was certainly intended to be used for events such as the Tea Dances.
Box beam construction diagrams
However, the finished design was different. In the finished design, the one that collapsed, the floating walkways were suspended and supported by two steel rods, set in multiple places. As shown in the image, they were parallel to each other and offset, and bolted to the box beam. Also, in this design, the top rod that supported the fourth-floor walkway was through only the top of the box beam and bolted on the top of the box beam. The rod that supported the second floor went only through the bottom of the box beam support and was only bolted to the bottom of the support. Again, it is very clear to see in the diagram.
Now, many would think this may not matter. After all, there’s still support rods and bolts and box beams and everything right? Well, this just isn’t the case. The first design had more properly accounted for the full and even distribution of the weight load upon all the rods supporting all of the walkway surfaces. It also had been more eye appealing. The second design merely took into consideration the basic function of these support rods and the easiest way to provide this function and then considered the ease of fabrication.
And that’s where we go next.
When the first design was sent for fabrication, the fabricator told the project people that this design was simply just a very unrealistic idea. Put simply, for the first design to work and the bolts to be threaded on in the proper place was to fabricate the rod completely threaded from end to end. This did not appeal to the fabricator, nor did it appeal to the project engineer or manager, as it would risk damage when the fourth-floor walkway was hoisted up and set at permanent height. Now, one could possibly make the argument that the fabricator was being helpful. One could possibly argue the fabricator was being lazy. One could say that fabricator may not have even had the machine capabilities at the time to produce a threaded rod of more than forty feet. Who knows? Bottom line ended up being that the fabricator said they were not able to get the fabrication done as is and suggestions for revisions to the design were made.
The original design called for six individual rods, three on each side, penetrating through both the second and fourth floor walkway, as the fourth-floor walkway was directly above and parallel to the second. These rods would be attached to the steel beams in the roof, then come through the ceiling and continue through the walkway and through the fourth-floor box beams, then through the second-floor box beams and through the second walkway. This would have completely supported and distributed the seventy-two tons of concrete that comprised these skywalks.
But the change to twelve rods, making each intersection at the skywalk a double rod intersection inside the box beams, was less than stable and sound engineering. This change catastrophically redistributed this massive load of weight to rods that didn’t have the capacity to endure such a test of endurance and strength. The load put on the fourth-floor box beams was actually doubled and when one beam connection failed, they all went bad. With the weight already disproportionally distributed and the added weight of the partygoers, the fourth-floor box beam snapped, weaking the strength of this crucial weight bearing connection. Once the fourth-floor skywalk box beam snapped and the walkway popped free, it dropped several feet. This caused an unmanageable strain on the box beams as now they were not only unable to hold the extra weight, let alone the original weight they had been tasked with. Under this strain the fourth-floor skywalk crashed to the second-floor skywalk which then snapped immediately under the enormous structural burden. Thus, sending the seventy-two tons of concrete and building materials crashing down upon the party below.
Now, that’s what happened as far as the cause of the collapse. But, how could such a mistake have been made?
Here’s where it gets sticky.
The fabricator claimed he got the new design approved by the engineer of record. The engineer of record, at first, claimed to not have approved any such design change. But the fabricator had the engineer’s red stamp on the design showing that he had seen in, looked it over, done any calculations and made any changes that were necessary, stamped it and sent it back for fabrication. And yes, like I said, the design did in fact have the approval stamp on it.
So…who’s to blame?
Well, like most tragedies of such an unintentional nature, the blame kind of goes to a few people. Also, like most tragedies, there is a single party that assumes all the blame. I know, it seems like the two can’t go together but they do.
First, let’s look at the party who actually got legally assigned blame. That would be Jack Gillum and his company, Gillum and Associates, the engineer of record. Fact is, while he had spoken to people about the altered design over the phone, he had not actually seen design schematics in person. He gave the final design approval over the phone having never laid eyes on the actual design itself, doing any recalculations or any manipulations. He took the word of the fabricator who frankly, no disrespect, was not an engineer. In doing that, he approved a design that was destined to fail and wreak havoc.
Gillum was found to be culpable of gross negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering. However, he was acquitted of all criminal charges filed against him. He and his company did receive sanctions from various organizations. Gillum and Associates lost their license to practice engineering in Missouri, where this happened, in Kansas and in Texas. They were also members of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Their membership was promptly revoked upon the findings of the investigation.
Several departments opened investigations when this happened. The local metropolitan newspaper, The Kansas City Star, hired architectural engineer Wayne G. Lischka to look into the collapse. He looked at everything involved with the entire project from start to finish. Lischka discovered the significant alteration to the original design.
At this same time, Havens Steel Co., the fabricator of the hanger support rods, requested that the box beams be tested at the labs at Lehigh University.
The Missouri Licensing Board along with the Attorney General and other Jackson County officials also opened investigations, which ended up taking years to complete. They, along with the National Bureau of Standards, found that structural overload resulting from design flaws was the cause of failure and that the skywalks “had only minimal capacity to resist their own weight”. Which basically means that they were barely hanging on as they were. You add people to them, plus dancing and music vibrations and you get the fatal overload and collapse.
Now, that’s Gillum’s responsibility. He had the final say on the design. That is true. However, I really do believe that there were others that knew this was a bad idea, thought perhaps this wouldn’t work or just plain didn’t know better.
Take the fabricator at Havens Steel Co. The person who rejected the original design, as far as I know, has never been named publicly. Yet this person made changes to an engineer’s design without permission. To me, it doesn’t matter so much that he had the rubber stamp of approval. He made design changes he should not have made. If anything, he should have just returned the schematics and told the engineer why he couldn’t manufacture the requested piece. He could have then waited for the engineer himself to make changes and resubmit the design for fabrication. Instead, he made a command decision on a matter he had no business making decisions on and then he and Gillum both only verified everything over the phone. There is some of that blame on each of them, in my opinion.
Not to mention that Gillum had to have had people working for him that saw this design. This wasn’t some sort of clandestine project kept hush hush. This was actually a very big deal at the time, this hotel being built. Did nobody question this new design at all? Not one of his colleagues saw this design in all the time this hotel was being planned and built?
I can’t seem to really believe that. And those people know (or knew, depending on how old they were at the time, it’s been forty years this July) who they are and what they did.
Jack Gillum actually owns this disaster all to himself. He takes all responsibility as he was the engineer of record, so the buck stops with him. He has used this very catastrophic oversight as lecture material for engineering conferences as a cautionary tale, and “to help ease his conscience”. (His words, not mine)
So, okay, I talked about all that first to get it clarified and out of the way. Because it’s only right that the victims get the attention they deserve. So now, we are going to turn our focus to them.
KC Star headline, special section in metro newspaper to address the collapse
This instance remains the deadliest unintentional single structural collapse in American history. It claimed the lives of one hundred-fourteen people. It injured one hundred-eighty-eight people. And these weren’t just lives taken or injuries to bodies. This disaster rattled the not only the victims themselves, but also those that were part of the rescue effort, those involved with the planning and construction of the hotel, the entire metro area and all the surrounding smaller cities and towns on the outskirts of the metro. Everyone was shaken when those skywalks collapsed. But none were forever altered the way that the victims were. After this horrific catastrophe over three hundred lives were irrevocably changed. Some families lost a loved family member, some lost more than one in the collapse as many of the attendees were couples and/or families. Many victims were injured, some recovered from the injuries to physical state they were in before the collapse. Others would suffer permanent physical effects from the damage sustained to their bodies. A number of these victims would later go on to deal with massive amounts of post-traumatic stress including such things as nightmares, depression, survivor’s guilt, shock, loss of appetite, mood disorders and so much more. Even many of the rescue workers suffered from PTSD. But the actual victims had to deal with the effects of this tragedy for quite some time, some families are even still dealing with them. After recovering from their injuries, the many victims and families of victims went to work. Over three hundred civil suits were brought to court in the fallout of the Hyatt collapse. A class action lawsuit against Crown Center Corp., a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards (they were the hotel property management group at the time of the collapse, but they were not the owners of the actual property the hotel was built on), seeking compensation for punitive damages won the plaintiffs $10 million, $26.97 million today. This judgement included $6.5 million in donations to charitable and civic causes in an effort to promote healing in the wake of the tragedy. This donation came from Hallmark Cards. All in all, at least $140 million from civil judgements went to victims and their families. This equals approximately $339.9 million in today’s economy. Each of the 1600 guests at the hotel that night were offered one thousand dollars with no strings attached. Out of the 1600 victims, 1300 accepted the money, the rest did not. This was to remain not only the largest non-deliberate structural failure in the country’s history but also the deadliest. The structural collapse of 9/11 was intentional thereby putting it in a different classificational category. Because of this tragedy, there was an updating of the culture and education of the engineering industry. Ethics and emergency management procedures and expectations changed and became stricter, enforcing accountability and responsibility for projects and their finished product. This tragic failure became a valuable teaching tool in order to avoid something like this from happening again. Trade groups issued investigations when necessary, improved the standards by which peer reviews were conducted, sponsored seminars and created new updated trade manuals to improve and increase the professional standard and also the public’s confidence and trust in the engineering profession. The disaster was even cited in 1983 in the argument against President Ronald Reagan’s endeavor to eliminate the National Bureau of Standards. He was not successful at that time.
The Hyatt, then and remodeled
On November 12, 2015, twenty-four and half years after the devastating events of the Hyatt Regency collapse of 1981, a memorial dedicated to the victims of the tragedy was unveiled by the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization established for the victims, which Hallmark Cards donated $25.000 to. It is located across the street from the hotel in Hospital Hill Park. In 1983 the hotel was remodeled and reconstructed at the cost of $50 million and the newly upgraded was said to be “possibly the safest in the country”, according to local authorities at the time of reopening on October 2, 1981, just less than three months after the collapse itself. In my humble opinion, and I’m not an engineer, I’ve never studied engineering, I’ve never pretended to be an engineer, BUT I do wonder if it’s really possible to make a building that just had the worst accidental structural failure in history the safest building in the country in a little over two months. Seems like an ambitious idea given the circumstances you are starting with. I may even dare to say it’s almost arrogant to say that the building that just incurred this disaster is now the safest building in the country while people who were there at the time of collapse are still reeling and recovering from the tragic events. That seems rather bold and callous to me.
The newly named Sheraton Kansas City at Crown Center
The building was renamed Hyatt Regency Crown Center in 1987 as part of a rebranding plan and again in another rebranding attempt in 2011, making the final name Sheraton Kansas City at Crown Center. While they have tried multiple things over the years to mitigate the effects a disaster like this can have on a brand, they will never be able to erase the history. Boldly, in the remodels over the years, the lobby has kept relatively the exact same layout as the original Hyatt lobby struck by the skywalk collapse. All the fixtures and furniture and décor has been updated and there is almost nothing to remind us of those tragically lost in that very lobby. Except for one thing. In the back of the lobby there is a small framed picture of the original lobby on a plaque with a dedication to those affected and lost in the collapse of 1981. Other than that, the hotel has moved on, not only with the times but also in spirit.
Skywalk Memorial Dedication announcement
This year marks the 40-year memorial anniversary of the collapse. In just a few short months the summer will be upon us here in the Midwest again. But, in the wake of the current times and trends, there are no more Tea Dances at the hotel. And while the days of live bands playing old time dancing music and couples bringing their children to such events as a part of quality family time are long gone, the impact of this horrible event has had a permanent and lasting effect on the industry. And while that certainly will never bring loved ones back, replace or repair damaged psyches and bodies, it does provide a modicum of peace knowing that there are now safety measures and procedures, rules and regulations currently in place to prevent this from ever happening again. These people trusted that that building was safe when they walked in to dance and have cocktails that night. They assumed that the building was “up to code” as we now say. They thought it was just going to be an easy-going night. That trust was abused and overlooked by many of those involved in the project. And the cost was non-refundable, irreplaceable and deadly.
I was lucky that my folks didn’t go to the dance that night. I was lucky that Dad was tired and feeling lazy. We all were. I had my Dad for thirty-three more years after that. I had my Mom for thirty-seven more years. And those years cannot be measured in any way, shape or form. My life could have been very different, but I’m thankful that it wasn’t. My heart still goes out to the victims and their families. May they all find peace. Thank you for reading.