“Like a long time ago, and yesterday — both.”
That’s how one survivor describes the 40 years since July 17, 1981.
On that fateful Friday night, tragedy struck Kansas City when two skywalks inside the crowded Hyatt Regency hotel lobby collapsed.
Hundreds of people were injured, and 114 killed.
The Hyatt had just opened a year earlier, on July 1, 1980. It was the place to be on a Friday night in Kansas City at the time.
That particular evening, the hotel was hosting a tea dance and more than 1,600 people were in attendance.
Most of those were on the first floor of the lobby, dancing, drinking, and visiting with friends.
Around 60 people watched from the suspended skywalks above the lobby.
They were one of the hotel’s most striking features. The suspended style made it look almost as if they floated in the atrium.
Sadly, they’re known more today for the death and destruction they inflicted that night than their architectural beauty.
Around 7 p.m., many party goers heard what sounded “like a crack.”
Sally Firestone, who was 34 in 1981, said that’s all she remembers. She was perched on the edge of one of the skywalks.
“I was on the edge of the skywalk, so when I was thrown off of it — I’m not really absolutely sure. I know I was admitted to KU Medical Center two hours later,” she said.
Firestone was thrown off the bridge when the fourth floor skywalk collapsed onto the second floor skywalk, bringing both crashing down onto the dance floor below.
Hundreds were trapped, and many died on impact.
Some would say it’s perhaps a blessing that Firestone doesn’t remember what happened in the two hours between the collapse and when she was taken to the hospital, because the scene inside the hotel was traumatizing and chaotic.
It looked like “a bomb went off in a small enclosure,” according to Dr. Joe Waeckerle, who was one of the first emergency medical responders on the scene.
He was working at Baptist Medical Center at the time, but was not on shift when he received the call.
“The phone call said, ‘Hey Dr. Joe, this is EMS and we need you.’ They said, ‘Well, the Hyatt has had an accident, the roof caved in or something. We don't know what's going on, but we need a medical person there,’” Waeckerle recalled.
He had no idea what he was walking into, but threw on some scrubs, grabbed his stethoscope and got there as quickly as possible.
Waeckerle couldn’t have anticipated what awaited him at the scene, and said he still remembers his “oh my God” moment.
“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,” Waeckerle said. "I was walking in 6 to 12 inches of water… Everybody was sort of in chaos and screaming, and people were attending the best they could to injured people and relatives."
He closed his eyes, took a deep break, prayed and said to himself, “OK, I've got to do this, and it's time to get on.”
PHOTOS | 1981 Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse
Waeckerle played a huge role in the medical response to the Hyatt disaster.
In the midst of the carnage, he said he was faced with extremely difficult decisions that night.
“Identify the people who are going to die no matter what you do, so you'll leave them alone, the people that are going to live no matter what you do, so you don't attend to them, and then the people in the middle that have a chance to live if you can intervene, and those are who you go after,” Waeckerle described.
Waeckerle said he had to “divorce” himself from feelings that he had to help everyone, because there were those who were beyond saving and those who didn’t need saving as badly as others.
“My focus was on who I could help next. My focus was not on what I did two minutes ago. My focus was on what I could do next to the next person to help them,” Waeckerle said. “I was never comfortable with saying to you, ‘You are going to die no matter what I do,’ but I did it and I knew it was true and I had to go on.”
Throughout the rescue, Waeckerle said he and other workers had no idea they could be in further danger from other structural issues.
“Nobody told us that the circle staircase on the south side where the part of the fourth floor was leaning and there were pockets of people under there — nobody said that was unstable and that we were endangering ourselves by being there the whole time,” Waeckerle said.
That’s why officials brought in people like Bob Berkebile, who was the architect of the hotel, to examine the structure and identify potential danger points as well as begin to pinpoint a cause for the collapse.
Berkebile had a very different experience from Waeckerle’s when he walked in.
“The first thought was, ‘this is a huge human disaster,’ and the second thought was, ‘Did I cause it? Did I kill these people?’” Berkebile said.
It was the the longest night of his life, he said.
"I had been in Vietnam, I'd seen bad stuff. But this was the worst thing I had ever seen,” Berkebile said.
“It’s not like war, but it is like war,” Waeckerle said.
Berkebile said the collapse was caused by a structural failure in the final design.
“The original design was one rod, from ceiling to the lowest bridge, and the higher bridge was suspended on the same rod,” Berkebile said.
During construction, that design was altered.
“The fabrication engineer suggested to the structural engineer that it would be more efficient to have two rods, rather than one very long rod, requiring them to suspend the first bridge, then the second bridge from the same set of rods,” Berkebile said.
The engineers contended not only was the new design equally safe, it was more efficient to build.
“Obviously you can see with one very long rod, and two bridges supported by it, that would require some coordination, and more time, and so they said it's not that critical,” Berkebile said.
The engineers truly thought the alteration was only changing the appearance of the skywalks.
But, it changed the level of risk, too.
In the first design, the one continuous rod would have supported the weight of both bridges from the ceiling.
The changed design transferred the weight of the second-floor skywalk to the fourth-floor skywalk through a steel box-beam connection.
“The bridges, technically, as the report reads, would have fallen eventually under their own weight,” Berkebile said. “There's a lot of speculation it was the load of all the dancers, or harmonics — not true. They were designed to fail, or I should say, they were built to fail. And they failed, sadly, when the place was full of people from the community."
The disaster has changed the way industry professionals review design plans today across the United States.
Now, it’s routine for a third-party engineer to examine all steel connections in any construction project nationwide.
Berkebile said it’s also a much more transparent review process than in 1980.
Even the way cities review, approve and inspect projects changed as a result of the collapse.
While they’re all good improvements, Berkebile said there’s still the human element to think about.
“Ultimately, it still requires high performance on the part of all the players. And frankly, that gives me pause,” he said. “Even with the best intentions, and the best guidelines, horrible things can happen. So it requires all of us to be at our best all the time, if we have any concern about public safety, and the wellbeing of our community well into the future."
Lawyer and architect Bill Quatman said the Hyatt skywalk collapse shows professionals they need to pay attention to the smallest details.
"I think it's important to keep teaching the lesson that you've got to pay attention to the small details,” Quatman said. “People think about the big details, and those are important too, but the little details, in this case, are what caused the fatality."
A $40 million to $50 million project came down to one steel connection that didn’t get checked, Quatman said.
"Nobody could believe that an engineer, who was trained to protect the life, health, and safety of the public, could have missed an important detail like they did. And that's what happened,” he said.
Berkebile was not at fault in the collapse. As Quatman explained, it was Berkebile’s job to design the project, and the engineers’ job to “make it stand up.”
“It wasn't an architectural detail, it was the engineers. In fact the evidence showed that the architects asked the engineers multiple times, ‘Did you check the details?’ And they were assured every time that ‘We checked it,’” Quatman said.
The engineers and firm who were responsible lost their licenses and in court, a judge found they defrauded the architects and owners of the Hyatt.
After the investigation into the collapse was complete, Berkebile had the answer to his first question: Did I kill these people?
No, he didn’t. But he doesn’t find comfort in that.
"There was no relief in learning there was a structural issue, failure, because that couldn't change what had happened,” he said.
REMEMBERING LIVES LOST
Knowing who and what were at fault in the tragedy didn’t bring loved ones back, of course.
It didn’t heal injuries victims still deal with years later.
Firestone wasn’t expected to live after the collapse, but miraculously, she did.
She was critically injured and was paralyzed from the shoulders down and has spent the last 40 years in a wheelchair.
Looking at old pictures, Firestone said she’s grateful she survived.
“There was a lot to learn, a lot to figure out how to process, just in, what life is like afterwards. And it took a while to figure that out, but I had great help along the way,” she said.
Those who sadly didn’t survive are now honored at the Skywalk Memorial Plaza near 22nd and Gillham in Kansas City, Missouri.
The sculpture is an abstract depiction of a couple dancing, featuring the names of those lost on its base.
Among them are Karen and Eugene Jeter, who were married just 16 days before the disaster.
Brent Wright, Karen’s son, is now president of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation and works every day to make sure his mother and the 113 others killed are remembered.
"I remember having conversations with her, talking about death, and, ‘What if I'm gone?’” Wright said. “She'd say, ‘Go, live your life, be happy, but don't forget me.’”
He said he chose to move forward from the loss and try to get something positive out of the situation by helping preserve memories in an increasingly busy world.
"We get a lot of things in our lives every day: texts, emails, news at every second,” Wright said. “And it's easy to kind of lose some of that in the noise of everyday life. But we shouldn't. We should remember that, and never forget."