Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Lives forever changed by skywalk collapse

July 15, 2001


— Sally Firestone went to the Friday night tea dance with three friends after work. She was all dolled up, standing on a suspended walkway at the Hyatt Regency downtown, enjoying a dance contest in the hotel lobby below.

The last thing she remembers is hearing a loud "crack."

Chuck Hayes and his then-wife, Jane, were to meet friends at the year-old luxury hotel before taking in a movie. They were standing near the atrium when tons of concrete and steel came tumbling down.

Ron and Grace Trefts of St. Louis, in town for a florists convention, had just eaten dinner at the hotel and were on their way to watch the revelers from one of the graceful skywalks spanning the lobby. First, Grace Trefts wanted to check on their children back home, and Ron Trefts went to get his pipe he'd left in the car.

The delay probably saved their lives.

Stories abound about how the lucky ones escaped death when the Hyatt's skywalks collapsed July 17, 1981, in what remains the deadliest structural failure in the nation's history. One hundred fourteen people were killed, and more than 200 others were injured when steel connections supporting the concrete and glass skywalks failed.

Preventable tragedy

The Hyatt collapse forever changed the lives of those who were there that night and was a catalyst for changes in construction practices nationwide. Ultimate blame was pinned on the two structural engineers who designed the skywalks.

"It could've been prevented," said Hayes, who recovered from broken legs and a fractured back.

The night of the collapse, there was an overflow crowd at the city's newest luxury hotel with some people seated at second-floor tables overlooking the lobby and others gathered on the 120-foot walkways.

"The people were dancing and clapping. Everyone was happy and having a good time," recalls Grace Trefts, now 63.

At 7:04 p.m., the band started playing Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" as a dance contest got under way. About a minute later, the fourth-floor walkway split in two places near the center, falling down onto the second-story walkway, which also collapsed.

"I remember hearing a loud noise and the next thing I remember, I was covered with chunks of concrete," said Hayes.

The couple with Hayes escaped uninjured and helped lift rubble off his face. His wife lay severely injured nearby, though she later recovered.

The Trefts heard the commotion and frantically searched for one another. They met at the bottom of a stairway.

'Controlled hysteria'

"There were a lot of electrical wires and sparks. I think a water main broke because there was a lot of water on the floor," Grace Trefts said. "Dust was still rising. We all were very, very frightened, but it was a controlled hysteria."

John Tezon, a paramedic who responded to the Hyatt, vividly remembers the carnage and cries for help.

"I had 10 years under my belt at the time and had seen a lot of things up to that point, but this was overwhelming," Tezon said.

Rescue workers spent the next 14 hours pulling victims, dead and alive, from the tangle of steel and concrete. Cranes and forklifts moved heavy slabs of concrete so emergency crews could reach the injured. A firefighter performed an on-the-spot amputation with a chain saw to free one victim. City buses lined up outside to cart the walking wounded to hospitals.

Sally Firestone lay unconscious and trapped for hours under the debris. The most severely injured of the survivors, she was left a quadriplegic with no feeling below her shoulders.

"I'm not really bitter. I'm just amazed that no one discovered the problems with the building," said Firestone, 54, who lives in a retirement home in south Kansas City and requires around-the-clock care. "So many things happened along the way that should have been caught."

Assigning blame

Edward Pfrang, who headed the National Bureau of Standards' investigation into the collapse, blamed the disaster on a design change during construction.

The change resulted in the second-floor walkway being suspended from the walkway on the fourth floor, rather than having both suspended from the same set of rods attached to the lobby ceiling. The skywalks were not designed to hold a third of the weight they were holding the night of the collapse, Pfrang said.

No one caught the mistake.

An administrative law judge found structural engineers Jack D. Gillum and Daniel M. Duncan negligent, and the Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors revoked their licenses.

Duncan testified at hearings that he never checked the connections. He said it was the responsibility of the fabricators to make sure the connections would hold.

Lawrence Grebel, the St. Louis attorney who represented Duncan and Gillum at the hearings, said it was not fair that his clients were found responsible for a change that was made without their knowledge. Gillum declined to talk to The Associated Press about the Hyatt. Neither he nor Grebel knew of Duncan's whereabouts.

Pfrang said one simple, but important lesson was learned from the collapse: all parties to the project have responsibilities they can't walk away from.

He said the Hyatt was "one of the worst examples of people trying to push off their responsibilities to other parts of the team."

After the collapse, the American Society of Civil Engineers adopted a policy that would have held the structural engineers responsible. It's now clearly stated that structural engineers are ultimately responsible for reviewing shop drawings by fabricators, Pfrang said.

While the society's policy is not legally binding, it would carry some weight in court, Pfrang said.

Other legacies

Paul Munger, chairman of the state board when it stripped Gillum and Duncan of their licenses, and who returned to the same post in 1995, said the disaster also led to peer reviews in the industry.

"Since the Hyatt, there has been a lot of activity in the engineering profession to address quality, the final product and how you attain quality," said Munger, a retired engineering professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla. "The steps taken after the Hyatt helped the industry recover from failure."

Settlements and judgments stemming from lawsuits after the collapse totaled about $140 million, said Steve Doyal, a spokesman for Hallmark Cards Inc., whose subsidiary Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. owns the hotel.

The largest settlement about $12 million went to Firestone. Hayes, who now owns an Overland Park-based company that produces on-hold messaging, agreed not to disclose the amount of his settlement, but he conceded it was large enough that he'd never have to work again.

The Trefts and anyone else inside the hotel at the time of the collapse were eligible to receive $1,000. By the time the Trefts decided to claim their money, the filing deadline had passed.

The Hyatt, which opened in July 1980, reopened three months after the collapse. The skywalks were not rebuilt, and there were no more tea dances, although large New Year's Eve parties are celebrated each year in the lobby.

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