KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bob Berkebile calls July 17, 1981, the longest night of his life.
There are a lot of people who could describe that night the same way, but Berkebile's story of that night is different.
Around 7 p.m., two of the skywalks in the Hyatt Regency hotel lobby collapsed onto the dance floor below.
As he stood in the lobby of that hotel, witnessing destruction and death on a massive scale, he wondered, “Is all of this my fault?”
“I had been in Vietnam, I'd seen bad stuff,” Berkebile said. “But this was the worst thing I had ever seen."
Berkebile, the architect of the Hyatt Regency hotel, learned of the disaster while watching television at a friend's home that Friday night. In less than half an hour, he was inside the lobby.
“I spent the longest night of my life watching the recovery," Berkebile said.
Berkebile designed the skywalks years earlier, with visions of people watching big events from above the lobby, which is exactly what some party-goers were doing when the walkways fell.
The plan for those bridges was significantly changed during construction.
"The original design was one rod, from ceiling to the lowest bridge," Berkebile said. “Fabrication engineer suggested to the structural engineer that it would be more efficient to have two rods, rather than one very long rod, and they all concluded that: 'A,' it was important, and 'B,' there was no safety problem."
That assessment couldn't have been more wrong.
"The bridges, technically, as the report reads, would have fallen eventually under their own weight," Berkebile said.
And the timing couldn't have been worse as around 1,600 people had gathered for a tea dance.
When Berkebile identified himself at the hotel that night, he was immediately put to work. Not specifically on the rescue effort, but to ensure that the situation wasn't going to get worse.
"They were concerned that, for example, by lifting a piece of the bridge, to get weight off of people to get them out, it would fall, and the whole thing would fall through to the garage below," Berkebile said.
During that long night, Berkebile had a moment that literally brought him to his knees.
"In the middle of the night, I had been asked to examine more closely the connection of the bridge that had fallen,” Berkebile said. “I was climbing up to examine this connection, and in the cables that were still attached to the side of the bridge, was a part of a face, and I thought it was one of my friends, and I collapsed, and some friends helped me, and I had a cup of coffee, and they helped me settle down, and I continued then and worked the rest of the night."
The investigation into the Hyatt tragedy concluded with a ruling that engineers were at fault, not Berkebile — but that decision brought little comfort.
Forty years later, it still doesn't.
"There was no relief in learning there was a structural issue, failure, because that couldn't change what had happened,” Berkebile said. “Psychologically, it still breaks my heart to be there for all the obvious reasons. When I walk through there, I can't avoid the memories of that night.”
Berkebile, now 84 years old, still works in architecture and design. He and his firm have worked on many of Kansas City's most well-known buildings, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, One Kansas City Place and Union Station.
The engineers who were found to be at fault for the Hyatt lost their licenses.