KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The photos of the immediate aftermath of the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse in 1981 are devastating — but they're only photos. They can't begin to convey what people there saw, heard, felt, and even smelled.
The scene outside the Hyatt that Friday night was terrible, with lights flashing over crowds of worried onlookers, and severely injured people in the streets.
The scene inside was so much worse.
"You know the smell of blood, but you don't know the smell of carnage," Joe Waeckerle, former emergency physician at Baptist Medical Center, said. "I walked in, and there were electrical wires swinging and arcing, there was water running out of the pipes, which had been severed by the skywalk collapses… I distinctly remember my ‘Oh My God’ moment."
Waeckerle said that there were so many dead, or gravely injured, that he doesn't remember who he went to help first. He set to work on a task both completely necessary, and almost unthinkable.
"Identify the people who are going to die no matter what you do," Waeckerle said. “People that are going to live no matter what you do, and then the people in the middle that have a chance to live if you can intervene, and those are who you go after."
Throughout the night, and into Saturday morning, Waeckerle led much of the medical effort.
"We tried to assign people to talk with the people in trapped pockets," Waeckerle said.
He spent hours making one grim designation after another.
"I was covered in glass, I was covered in cuts," Waeckerle said. “The whole world turned off."
Sally Firestone was there that night too, but unfortunately, she arrived long before Waeckerle did.
"I was on the edge of the skywalk,” Firestone said. “A crack. That’s all I remember.”
She'd come to her second tea dance with a group of friends, and was standing on the second floor skywalk. She doesn't remember much about that night, and prefers it that way.
"My neck was broken, one leg was broken, the other had a hairline fracture,” Firestone said. “And I lost most of my blood through scalp lacerations. I was told they didn't really expect me to live."
The collapse paralyzed Firestone from the shoulders down, and put her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She said she’s learned a lot about herself in the time since.
"Amazed that I could handle it, as well as I did," Firestone said. “I wasn't the kind of person that blames God or anyone for what happened. The 'why' might be, what if I hadn't gone, what would my life be like? But the what-ifs, you can play as much as you want. It's what you are actually doing now that is meaningful."
Firestone has made meaningful contributions to Kansas City for years, serving on multiple boards, especially advocating the arts. She's a current board member of the American Jazz Museum.
Waeckerle, or Dr. Joe, as he introduced himself to the people under the rubble that awful night, still practices medicine. And his patients, whether they know it or not, are benefiting because of a decades-old tragedy.
"Life and death is totally different to me now because of things like this," Waeckerle said. "I think it changed me as a person more than as a doctor."