July 1st, 2011 – Thirty Years Later…The Effects of the Hyatt Tragedy

On July 17, 1981, the 2nd and 4th floor skywalks crashed to the floor of the lobby during a Friday night tea dance. Lives were lost...and changed forever.

Some years, I don’t even think about it.  It’s just another hot day in July.  But this year is different.  Kansas City media outlets are already talking about what happened on July 17th, 1981. 

Thirty years ago today, the Hyatt Regency Kansas City was celebrating our 1 year anniversary.  And I was celebrating my 1 year anniversary, too.  I arrived to work with a wonderful chocolate cake from Andre’s Confisserie Suisse.  In a time way before the Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes, Andre’s was gracious enough to fulfill my request to make the top of the sheet cake look like a memo ($40 at the time!).  It was my way of expressing my thanks for all of the great people I worked with during that 1st year.  They helped me transition from high school to college.  And from naive little church boy to a young man learning about life.

But this post isn’t just about me.  There are a lot of details I could share about what happened to me before the tragedy and the night of.  This post is about the 114 people who are no longer with us.  It’s about the 216 people who were injured that night.  It’s also about the hundreds of fire personnel, paramedics, doctors, nurses, police officers, engineers, building professionals, volunteers and even hotel employees who gave of themselves to rescue bodies and save lives.  Several people who assisted that night described it as the aftermath of war. 

We are the survivors.  We are the ones who remain to speak about those who were lost.  We are the spouses, relatives, friends and co-workers who still grieve.  We are the service personnel, volunteers and workers who can say they have actually seen death. 

My story is just one of those.  On that night, I saw death for the first time.  Now, every time I see a tragedy on the news…9/11…Katrina…the tsunami…I feel a sense of  connection with the survivors.  Experiencing a traumatic event shakes you up.  It turns you either into an emotional basket case or completely numb.  You are forever changed.  

Thirty years later, there’s one major change as a result of the tragedy.  It changed construction standards.  After the tragedy, an investigation revealed that a change in design was at fault.  The original design would have put less weight on the skywalks. 

The original and final designs for skywalk support rods (photo credit: Wikipedia)

In actual construction, the 4th floor was supporting itself as well as the 2nd floor.  Also the  rods were installed with bolts directly through a welded joint connecting two C-channels, the weakest structural point in the box beams.  Engineers who approved this final design have spent time sharing their story with others in the engineering and construction fields as a lesson to be remembered. 

Up until last year, it seemed as though the city had forgotten about what happened.  For years, there was talk of creating a memorial park near the hotel.  Now, the plans are in place, the money is being raised but the park has not been built.

Picture from the hotel, circa 1982, a year after the tragedy. Employees were nominated to the Spirited Service team by their managers. I'm on the front row towards the right with my friend, Carolyn.

I returned to the hotel when it reopened in the fall of 1981.  There are no signs or markers inside to make note of what happened.  I am still in contact with a few of my co-workers who were there that night.  Some are doing fine and have moved on.  Others are still struggling with the aftermath.  I completely understand it.  We all deal with trauma in different ways.  For some, it’s like a past injury to the body, only remembered when that part is touched.  For others, the injury has greater impact and permanently changes the entire body. 

The Hyatt tragedy was not the first traumatic event in my life nor was it the last.  I’ve survived a lot of things in my life.  Most of those only affected me or a few people.  The Hyatt tragedy affected thousands of lives. 

On the 17th of this month, take some time to think about and pray for those whose lives have been altered by this experience.  Some of us will have a very tough time on that day.  Even though I feel life has gone on and I’ve moved forward, I will do the same thing I did that night.  I will check in with a few friends to see if they need help.  And I will take a moment to pray.  And I will probably have a moment to weep. 

Somethings you can move past but you still never forget.

Blessings,

Carlton

SOURCES AND LINKS

Wikipedia – http://wikipedia.org

Article, A Tragedy Forgotten: The KC “Hyatt Regency” Skywalk Collapse by Brian Ford, July 17 on Newsvine blog

Information on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from National Institute on Mental Health

LINKS

Kansas City.com Hyatt tragedy project – submit your memories for a book project and website

A panel discussion on the tragedy and the book project will be held on the 30th anniversary, 2 pm at the Central Library.  Click here to RSVP

City in Shock webpage

The Skywalk Memorial Foundation will be at Hospital Hill Park, 22nd & Gillham, July 17, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 pm.

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