A look back at the Hyatt Regency Skywalk Disaster

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - It was a Friday night in Kansas City in July of 1981. A Tea Dance was rolling at the Hyatt Regency, arguably the city's poshest hotel.

The hotel's grand lobby atrium was four stories high, with three suspended walkways running overhead. The first floor skywalk ran right along the large bank of windows at the front entrance of the hotel connecting hallways of hotel rooms on one end of the lobby, to the ballrooms and suites on the other end. The second floor skywalk was inset, passing over the lobby closer to the center, while the third floor skywalk was directly above the first.

Hundreds of people gathered in the hotel lobby to dance the night away. Spectators gathered to watch from balconies and the three skywalks suspended over the where the dance was occurring.

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The dance had just started, while locals, hotel guests, business professionals in town for conventions, all hustled about, watching the dance, walking to meetings, dinner, and the like.

At 7:05 p.m., the festive atmosphere lurched to halt in an instant. Crushing concrete, ripping steel, rushing water and a dust cloud filled the room.

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No one could've imagined the skywalks collapsing, but that's exactly what happened to the 1st and 3rd floor walkways. The higher one - packed with people watching the dance below - fell, collapsing onto the 1st floor walkway, also crowded with people. Both skywalks subsequently plummeted to the floor, crushing anyone below their tons of concrete and steel.

Emergency workers, doctors, and bystanders searched through the rubble. Men, women and children – some still alive, others already gone – were trapped under tons of debris

Those at the Hyatt Regency that night, and those nearby, turned out to help. Others who couldn't help gathered across the street to watch.

Rick Bigham has worked in the Crown Center area for 37 years as an operating engineer. At the time of the collapse, he worked across the street. He remembers his boss calling to tell them to get the fork lift and go help. Bigham says they did, but realized pretty quickly their forklift was no match for the mounds of concrete.

%page_break%The local news reports documented the tragedy for days, calling the collapse "the city's worst tragedy in its history." Other stories noted how the then new and glamorous hotel would now "be remembered for yet a more important reason."

The Kansas City city council was briefed by then-mayor Richard Berkley, the police chief and lead medical doctor advised on the status of the scene. At the time, the police chief explained 96 of the victims had been identified, 12 women remained unknown.

Ultimately it was determined the walkways should never have been built. Steel rods 1.25 inches wide - about the width of a half dollar - and bolts held both walkways.

Three sets of rods held up the top skywalk, with another three sets securing the lower walkway to the upper one. It was a design later found to be fatally flawed. The rods and bolts were simply not enough to bear the weight of the walkways' steel and concrete, let alone the people on them. 

See a report from Texas A&M on the collapse

In all, 114 people died and 200 were hurt. Investigations ensued and lawsuits were filed. Hallmark, which owned the hotel, paid out an estimated $140 million in settlements over the collapse - a high price for one of Kansas City's greatest tragedies.

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