Kansas City, Mo. — In a city of memorials — to wars, firefighters, the Eagle Scouts, musicians and athletes — there is none yet to remind people of the hundreds of lives lost and scarred by one of the nation’s worst structural disasters: the 1981 skywalk collapse at Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The collapse occurred during a dance that drew about 1,500 people to what was then one of Kansas City’s newest hotels. Shortly after 7 p.m., the fourth-floor skywalk gave way, falling on a second-floor skywalk. Then both dropped about 45 feet into the crowded lobby. The collapse killed 114 people and injured more than 200. Many, many more — including those who rushed to cut people out of the twisted metal or care for the dying and wounded — were left with horrific memories.
Today, a ceremonial groundbreaking will take place a block from the hotel, where a group hopes to build a memorial as a lasting reminder of the tragedy.
“This was the darkest day in Kansas City’s history, and some people choose not to remember that. But I think the families want to remember their mothers and fathers and the lives that were lost,” said Bill Quatman, an engineer and lawyer who serves on the Skywalk Memorial Foundation board.
“Every other major disaster like this has a memorial except for Kansas City,” he said. “We have memorials in this town to Charlie Parker and Satchel Paige. But nothing to the 114 people who were killed that night. ... I think it’s important that people remember what happened here, especially for the families involved.”
The disaster had huge consequences. Investigators discovered the skywalks hadn’t been built properly, and the engineering company involved lost its license. Lawsuits followed. About $140 million was paid out in settlements to victims and their families.
Engineering standards and emergency response techniques were changed. The July 17, 1981, collapse is taught in engineering classes around the country, with engineers sometimes referring to design practices as “post Hyatt.”
Yet the foundation has raised less than half of the $800,000 needed to complete the 36-foot diameter memorial, which will include a sculpture, rows of pinpoint lights and benches. Hallmark Inc., which owned the building, has donated $25,000 to the memorial foundation and pledged another $25,000 if fundraising reaches $500,000.
“We, at the time, and to this day, believe that it was a terrible tragedy, and have great empathy for the people affected by it,” Hallmark spokesman Steve Doyal said. “And we are happy to be able to be supportive of the efforts of those who are trying to build a memorial.”
The Hyatt, which reopened for business about three months after the collapse and remains a popular destination in Kansas City, has so far not contributed to the memorial. Hotel general manager Rusty Macy said the company would decide by the end of the year whether it would donate.
“There really isn’t a period of time that goes by that someone doesn’t come into the hotel ... and they look up, and they point, and they ask a question,” Macy said. “It’s part of the legacy of this hotel.”
Frank Freeman, president and founder of the memorial foundation, was at the Hyatt when the skywalks collapsed. He was injured, and his partner, Roger Grigsby, was killed. Freeman has no doubt the memorial will be built. But he said he’s baffled by why it’s taken three decades.
“Why has it taken all these years? I don’t understand it,” Freeman said. “All I know is there was an attempt at the 10-year anniversary, and there was an attempt at the 15-year anniversary, and they didn’t get very far.”
Freeman sustained neck and back injuries in the collapse. But he also suffers from the loss of Grigsby, who Freeman pestered for weeks to go to the Friday night dances. Grigsby demurred until that day, when he called Freeman at work and said they would go that night.
“When he called and told me that, I was elated,” Freeman said.
He was standing next to Grigsby in the lobby floor watching the dancers when the skywalk fell.
“If I had not been standing at an angle, I would have gone under with him. ... It’s sad because I was on him for eight weeks to go these tea dances,” Freeman said. “The guilt. Oh the guilt.”