Archive for Monday, July 17, 2006

25 years later, hotel tragedy hard to forget

July 17, 2006

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— No memorial stands beneath the shimmering ceiling-hung sculpture, no plaque is mounted on the Hyatt Regency Hotel's gently flowing lobby fountain.

It doesn't matter. This is hallowed ground.

Twenty-five years since two suspended walkways collapsed in the Hyatt's main atrium during a crowded Friday evening dance, killing 114 people and injuring scores more, those affected by the tragedy are torn between trying to shake horrific recollections and continuing to remind the public not to forget.

The Hyatt had been open just a year at the time of the accident but had already become a fixture in this city's social scene. On Fridays, the hotel staged what it called its tea dance, and on July 17, 1981, more than 1,500 people attended. About 200 of them were gathered on two of the hotel's three skywalk bridges, spanning 120 feet across the four-story atrium and offering ample views of the lobby and its carefree dancers.

The band was playing a Duke Ellington tune, "Satin Doll," when it was interrupted by a loud crack, then absolute terror. The fourth-floor skywalk gave way at 7:05 p.m., falling on the second-floor bridge lined up below it. Both plunged about 45 feet to the crowded lobby.

The floor flooded with bloodstained water. Cries sounded from those who would be trapped under concrete, steel and glass, for hour after hour.

Rescue workers used cranes, forklifts and jackhammers in desperate attempts to free the trapped. Crude medical procedures were performed - including chainsaw amputations - as doctors tried to save whomever they could. The unbearable number of dead were hauled away; some 200 others were injured.

It shook this city unlike any other event, ranks among the deadliest structural failures in the nation's history and led to numerous changes within the engineering profession.

Investigators found that a change in the hotel's design during construction resulted in the second-floor walkway being suspended from the walkway two floors above - instead of having both walkways suspended from the same set of rods attached to the lobby ceiling. Also, the skywalks weren't built to support a third of the weight they were holding that night.

One of two structural engineers who bore ultimate blame for the collapse testified that he never checked the skywalks' connections, an oversight that prompted the industry to institute extra measures to double-check building designs for safety.

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