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Lessons learned from the 1981 Hyatt skywalk collapse

bill quatman skywalk memorial
Posted at 12:39 PM, Jul 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-16 23:55:31-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Hyatt Regency skywalks collapsed on July 17, 1981. An investigation concluded that engineers on the project were at fault, largely because of a change made to how the skywalks would be suspended.

Unfortunately, engineering mishaps can and do still happen, but there are systems in place now, because of the Hyatt collapse, that are meant to prevent them.

Sally Firestone was severely injured in the 1981 collapse, and has been confined to a wheelchair since. But she doesn’t have a lot of anger about the engineering failure.

"I feel like it was not just the engineers, it was the inspection process, and people who had an inkling that it might not be safe,” Firestone said. “We need to take the message away that more needs to be done."

Investigations into the disaster pinpointed a change in design as the reason for the collapse. Originally, the skywalks were both to be suspended by one long rod, stretching from the ceiling, through the 4th floor skywalk, and into the second floor skywalk. During construction, engineers changed that plan, using one rod from the ceiling to the upper walk, and then another rod to suspend the lower walk from the upper walk.

Bill Quatman serves on the board of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation. He'd just graduated from the University of Kansas School of Architecture when the skywalks fell.

"The box beam was failing from the weight of the 72-ton walkways from the date they were built," Quatman said. "Everybody was looking for the cause right away."

Quatman said that perhaps the most striking thing about the collapse is how many times the mistake could have been caught.

"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. “A workman noticed it when he was working on the walkways, but he said, 'I know all steel deflects, but I don't know, I'm not an engineer.’ So he covered it up with sheetrock, drywall, and didn't report it to anybody.”

"The engineer said ‘Well, it's somebody else's job to check it, not mine,’” Quatman said. "And the contractor said, ‘No, we thought you checked it.’ And it turned out, nobody checked it."

Today, because of the lessons learned in Kansas City, it's much less likely for that to happen.

"A third-party engineer has to go and inspect all the steel connections in a project that's under construction. Not the design engineer, but a third-party engineer,” Quatman said. "That's in the building codes now nationwide, really, from this event."

Bob Berkebile, architect of the hotel, still works on building design. But he said his mindset, even his purpose, changed forever because of that failure.

"The question that still sticks with me today primarily is, 'What is the unintended consequences of our designs?'" Berkebile 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."

Building codes aren't the only thing changed by the skywalk collapse.

Dr. Joe Waeckerle was the leader of the medical effort that night, and spent hours trying to save lives. He says disaster response today is different because of this tragedy.

"All disaster responses are local,” Waeckerle said. “You will not get help, you will not get aid, you will not get the federal government or the state government in there in time to change that first critical period. If you don’t plan it will be a disaster further.”

Today the Skywalk Memorial sits not far from the hotel. When you visit, notice the details. The names. The sculpture portraying a dancing couple. And the rippling circles, signifying the impact this tragedy should still have today.

There's a new book on the tragedy, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Serrano. It's set to be released in September 2021.