Home Emotional music Hyatt Regency collapse remains among deadliest in U.S. history: NPR

Hyatt Regency collapse remains among deadliest in U.S. history: NPR

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Firefighters rescue people under a collapsed walkway in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri on July 17, 1981. The collapse left 114 people dead and more than 200 injured.

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Firefighters rescue people under a collapsed walkway in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri on July 17, 1981. The collapse left 114 people dead and more than 200 injured.

Bettmann Archives / Getty Images

It was another summer night in 1981. Hundreds of people gathered for a “tea dance” at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Kansas City, Missouri on July 17th.

Among them were Karen Jeter, 37, and her husband, Eugene, 48, who had just married a few weeks earlier.

“She was a really good dancer. She loved dancing, loved music. She was the one who taught me to dance,” said Karen’s son Brent Wright. “They were really wonderful people.”

TV crews were also at the Hyatt Regency that evening to cover the social event in the hotel lobby. Years later, Wright would watch footage of Karen and Eugene Jeter on a national news program.

“They had captured this video of my mom and stepdad dancing, laughing, just having fun,” Wright said.

“It’s really a good thing to know that at least that night they were having fun and living their lives to the fullest, you know, still newlyweds,” he said. “At first, after a tragedy like this, these things are difficult to watch.”

The news clip captured some of the Jeters’ last moments.

They were among 114 people who were killed at the Hyatt Regency that night when two elevated walkways freed from their support rods and collapsed into the crowd below, injuring more than 200 people and leaving a pile of rubble crumpled digging for rescuers.

It remains one of the deadliest accidental structural failures in US history and draws parallels to the recent condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, which killed nearly 100 people some 40 years later. .

How the Hyatt Regency collapsed

In 1981, the same year the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside was built, the Hyatt Regency, some 1,500 miles away, was enjoying its second summer open to the public.

The concrete “heavenly bridges” floating above the lobby were a hallmark of the new 40-story hotel in the middle of Missouri’s largest city.


The site of one of the nation’s worst disasters is quiet after bodies were removed from the Hyatt Regency lobby. A still intact walkway hangs overhead as sections of the two collapsed walkways lie in the rubble.

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The site of one of the nation’s worst disasters is quiet after bodies were removed from the Hyatt Regency lobby. A still intact walkway hangs overhead as sections of the two collapsed walkways lie in the rubble.

Bettmann Archives / Getty Images

They would also be what would condemn him. After the collapse, investigators would conclude that a seemingly minor design change contributed to the disaster.

The elevated walkways were held by rods connected to the roof of the atrium. But the second floor walkway was connected to the fourth floor walkway – not the roof. This meant that the fourth floor walkway was taking double the expected load.

As the July 17 tea dance unfolded, the crowd grew in the lobby as well as on the catwalks, where spectators gathered to get a bird’s-eye view of the festivities below.

Then suddenly the second and fourth story airlifts began to sway before collapsing and crashing into the lobby, killing some revelers and trapping others under the broken concrete.

Among the first responders to the scene was Dr. Joseph F. Waeckerle, who had recently resigned his post as Kansas City medical director to take up a post at a local hospital.

“You have to understand the chaos and carnage that had taken place in this hall. The water was flowing, the power grid was cut when the walkways collapsed. Electric wires were hanging, electric arcs and sparks. ‘there was no light, ”Waeckerle said.

He said he spent around 12 hours in the hotel lobby, overseeing rescue triage operations for those who survived the collapse.

Even for Waeckerle, who had responded to other disasters, the scene at the Hyatt Regency was a shock.

“Like everyone else, I closed my eyes for a moment and said, ‘Damn, what am I doing here?’ and said a little prayer and prayed that I could do my best, ”he said. “And then left.”

Rescuers worked hard through the night, using cranes and other heavy machinery to move the huge chunks of concrete that made up much of the pile. First responders went to great lengths to extract victims who were trapped under stationary debris, sometimes amputating their limbs to get them out.

For Wright, it wasn’t until the next morning that his father and stepmother, who had also attended the tea dance, told him and his sister that Karen and Eugene Jeter were dead.

“It was unimaginable. You never expect this kind of news, especially when you’re a kid. And to say it was difficult is an understatement,” Wright said. “Part of your initial reaction is shock, and it’s almost too horrible to even believe it.”

It would take months, if not years, for Wright and the other families of the victims to get answers as to how something so unimaginable could have happened on such a joyous occasion.

Lessons learned


Civil engineers are still closely studying the deadly structural failure of the Hyatt Regency. It serves as an uplifting narrative for similar conceptions.

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Civil engineers are still closely studying the deadly structural failure of the Hyatt Regency. It serves as an uplifting narrative for similar conceptions.

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After the collapse, the engineering firm that signed the plans for the footbridges lost his license, and the owner of the Hyatt Regency paid $ 140 million in damages to the families of the victims.

The fatal structural failure is still closely studied by civil engineers and serves as a caveat for similar designs.

Waeckerle said first responders also learned lessons after working at the collapse site, such as how to improve communications, which he said is “still the biggest problem” in the event of a crash. disaster.

“For example, initially we used a megaphone, and it shortened very quickly when you were sprayed with water,” he said. “Then it was dark, so people screamed and screamed. And then we kind of got organized.”

He urged first responders to continue their research into the Surfside condo collapse to follow formal emergency management rules, but also to maintain an emotional connection with victims and survivors.

“Follow command and control. Follow communications. Never give up hope. And never give up on respecting your patients,” Waeckerle said.

Wright, who now helps lead the Skywalk Memorial Foundation to honor the victims of the collapse and the first responders who rushed to help, said he understands the lives of many families of those lost in the Surfside disaster.

“I have thought about all these people in Florida every day since this event,” Wright said in a recent interview. “I can only hope that they have friends and family with them to give them hope, comfort and help them through incredibly difficult days.”

Wright urged those relatives of the victims to continue their search for answers to what happened, and he acknowledged that for many years a period of excruciating mourning remained to come.

“But be patient. Sit down with these people who love you and love you and take it one day at a time. Eventually you will see a little light at the end of the tunnel. And with all of that, you ‘I m I know you can.