The Kansas City Hyatt Regency Collapse of 1981 Part Two: The Collapse
The story of this devastating structural failure has always remained close to my heart. And here’s why.
In 1981 my father was in his fifth year as a patrolman for a neighboring city police department. That day he had just come off a very long eight-hour shift. He must have gotten home around a little after 3pm and the shift started I think at probably 6am. He was exhausted. Mom asked him as soon as he walked in the door if they could go to the Hyatt that night because it was Friday and they were having their weekly Tea Dance. It started at 5pm and went until 8pm. My mother loved to dance and although Dad didn’t care to dance much past a certain age I guess, but I can personally say that Dad was a very good dancer. But he was raised by a man’s man and dancing just didn’t always fit into that personality. Not to mention that his feet and back were both killing him. All he wanted to do was take a hot shower, shave and brush his teeth and relax in front of the TV, probably to watch an episode of M*A*S*H or something (hey great show, don’t knock it, lol). Mom must have hounded him for at least thirty minutes, maybe even longer. Eventually Dad put his foot down and said they weren’t going that night.
Sitting in a huff and feeling disappointed, Mom and Dad watched television that night after dinner and it seemed that it would be a normal night. That was, of course, until a breaking news announcement came on the airwaves reporting that there had been a tragic accident at the Hyatt, that a structural collapse of the fourth and second floor skywalks had collapsed on several of those attending the Tea Dance.
As my parents watched in horror as each network worked tirelessly to cover the horrific tragedy, it hit them both like a brick to the face that they had escaped serious injury if not outright death by staying home that night. Dad, always being the one to try to lighten a serious mood like that, made the joke that his laziness and tiredness saved their lives. At the time, it WAS a joke. But, looking back now as an adult, it occurs to be often that I could have been orphaned at eleven months old. My brother would have been just under four years old at the time. And my godmother , my Mom’s sister, who was supposed to take us in if something had ever happened to both our parents was only nineteen at that time, just two months shy of twenty.
So, for me, this was what I have always considered a close call and fate, the balance of the universe, the cosmos, God, whatever you want to call it, kept my folks from going dancing that night and it probably saved their lives.
On the evening of July 17, 1981 approximately 1600 people gathered at the Hyatt around 5pm for the start of the evening’s festivities. The party was going well and there were no problems…yet.
To make this easy to follow, we are going to start with a basic timeline of what happened that hot evening in July of 1981. Things in this timeline will be elaborated on later in other articles, but for now this gives us the basic play by play.
During the course of this timeline, I will be referencing various people involved by name. I feel it’s not only easier on the flow of the timeline, but I also believe that these should be named, deserve to be named. So many times, with these kinds of catastrophes we can easily feel removed or detached from the tragedy. But all of the people this affected, from the victims to the survivors to the rescue workers to volunteers and yes, even the ones determined to be at fault should all be given the solemn respect we would all want for our loved ones had they been the ones involved.
This being the case, I thought I should tell you who the main people I mention are, that way you won’t be confused as to their role or place in the situation.
Dr. Joe Waeckerle was an Emergency Medicine Specialist, an ER doctor at Baptist Medical Center.
Jack Gillum (Gillum & Associates) was the engineer of record for the hotel.
Michael Mahoney was an on scene new reporter for KMBC Channel 9 News, an ABC affiliate in Kansas City.
Arnet Williams was the KCFD (Kansas City Fire Department) Deputy Chief from 1980 to 1983. He was Deputy Chief of the KCFD at the time of the collapse.
Chuck and Jean (Regina) Hayes, Tom and Jean Weir, Dalton Grant (who was eleven years old at the time) and Connie Grant (Dalton’s mother) were all partygoers attending the Tea Dance that night.
Everybody ready? Here we go: July 17 5pmTea Dance begins.
5:15pABC News shows up to cover the dance, approx. 1000 people in attendance by this time 6:30p. Hotel lobby full of partygoers, party is in full swing, no problems.
6:50p Wall to wall people attending the dance with more still showing up. 7:00p KMBC News reporter takes escalator to 2nd floor restaurant to get wide shot and film his report where there is less noise, during this take the tape and battery run out in the news camera, the technician replaces both in a matter of minutes.
7:05p4th floor skywalk starts to fall from losing its connection. 117ft of concrete and building material crashes smashing directly onto the 2nd floor skywalk directly below. This causes both skywalks to fall completely. 64 tons of steel, concrete and glass plummets onto the people just below the structures in the lobby
7:06p KMBC news team begins filming again. Lobby is complete rubble. The collapse has broken a water main causing the collapsed and demolished lobby to start flooding with water.
7:10pDozens of 911 calls are made to report the collapse. Emergency personnel begin to race to the scene. 7:15pDr. Waeckerle is on his way home when he hears about the collapse on the radio and immediately begins to drive to the scene to aid in rescue efforts after already having worked a 12 hour shift in the ER at his hospital. Mayor Richard Berkley leaves party at his house to rush to scene. Jack Gillum, the architect of record, is informed of the collapse. He immediately charters a plane to the scene Water from the sprinkler system is still pooling on the main floor of the lobby, except now it is a murky red mixture of water, building debris, dust and blood from the victims. Deputy Chief Williams orders water and electricity cut off for safety reasons.
7:25pDr. Waeckerle arrives and sets up triage and instantly begins to take charge of the medical care inside the disaster scene in the lobby.
7:30pKCFD Liaison arrives. Emergency workers are doing their best to save as many as they can under such difficult conditions. 7:45pDozens of people still trapped inside buried under the rubble of the debris of the collapsed structure. Trapped victims that are still alive are starting to doubt their chances of survival.
7:50pMore than 30 confirmed dead, over 100 injured. Firefighters open hotel front doors with heavy machinery, in fact plowing the doors down, to allow flooding water to flow out of the lobby. Construction workers arrive with jack hammers to break up giant slabs of concrete. Fire Department jacks still are unable to move the debris.
8:05pOperation Bulldozer is ordered and arrives but is ineffective. Cranes are ordered to the scene.
9:15pTrapped survivors are still under debris. They have been trapped for a little over two hours at this point.
10:15pRescuers start final sweep for survivors.
10:30pKMBC reporter releases news story on air to public. 10:50pSeveral victims are found still buried under debris.
11:05pVictim Dalton Grant still trapped but finally located. 11:10pSurvivors in Grant’s area count off, at first 11-12 people, the next count was 7. The victims are running out of time. Construction crews order smashing through the four-story wall of glass windows. Rescuers begin to attach cables to the concrete debris for the cranes to lift. 11:15pGillum arrives to survey the damage, immediately points out the missing “stiffeners” as the cause of the collapse.
July 18 12:02aChuck Hayes, one of the victims is out of surgery. His wife Jane is in critical condition. 12:35aDeath toll has reached over 60 people by this point. Rescuers are currently in contact with 7 people still buried in the rubble and water.
1:30aCranes begin to lift the large sections of skywalk an inch at a time, a long and painful process for everyone involved. 2:05a They uncover Dalton Grant, his mother Connie and a couple by the name of Weirs. All were pulled free of the wreckage. 3:35aRescue has shifted from rescue to recovery. They are now looking for bodies of the dead, believing that no one else has survived. During this effort they find the final survivor Mark Williams. 4:30aJack hammers are used to start to free Mark.
7:45aMark Williams is freed. 30 victims are found dead under the final piece of concrete, bringing the death toll to a total of 111 at the scene. Three more victims passed away at the hospital, making the final death toll 114. 8:05aVictims are recovering in hospitals, including couples like the Weirs and the Hayes couple. 10:00a Chuck Hayes recovering. Jane survived emergency surgery but is still in critical condition at this point. July 19 11:00aInvestigation begins. Box Beam Hanger Rod Connection failure is determined to be the cause of the collapse.
(Aftermath and fallout details to come.) I was less than a year old when this calamity took place. If my parents had gone dancing that night the odds are very high that they both would have been injured in the collapse of the skywalks. And they may or may not have survived. And it is quite possible that I would have never known my parents, which were two of the greatest people I’ve ever known. I am so thankful that Dad was tired and feeling lazy that night. His own patrol partner was called at home and told that he might be needed at the scene and to be on standby. Shortly thereafter, he was phoned and told that the scene had enough police support from the neighboring cities already and that he wasn’t needed to go assist with coordinating traffic and such around the rescue efforts. (Just a little side note: My Dad knew his patrol partner even before he met my mother and Mom and Dad were married 40 years before Dad passed. This man is a part of my family basically. Pretty much like another father figure to me. We are very close and I still keep in contact with him. He was a real-life source for part of the information for this series on the Hyatt Collapse of 1981, allowing me to get an understanding of the overall feelings and impact of the tragedy.) Now, almost forty years later, both of my parents have passed on. The hotel has been rebuilt, refashioned and renamed. There is only a small, tiny photo on the wall in the back of the lobby that commemorates those that were lost to such a horrible tragedy. Though the hotel has been renovated multiple times over the years, the lobby still has the same layout as it did when the collapse happened, an eerie reminder to those in the know that some things cannot be covered up with upgrades , new furniture, new carpet and paint. In my next article, I will detail the cause, the aftermath and the fallout of this infamous and tragic structural failure catastrophe. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!