Editor’s note: The following contains graphic descriptions some readers may find disturbing.
When Mark Williams heard the bolts snap, he spread his legs to run. So when the platform crashed, it pinned him in a splits position. Both of his legs popped from their sockets. His left foot wedged near his right ear. Trapped in an 18-inch pocket, he remained conscious. Then the pipes burst and water flowed across his head. He feared he might drown.
Moments earlier, everyone had been dancing. It was a beautiful Friday evening — July 17, 1981 — in the atrium of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency. The orchestra crooned jazz tunes for the hotel’s popular “tea dances.” Nearly 2,000 people attended — elderly couples in gowns and tuxedos twirled in each other’s arms, onlookers sipped cocktails at the bar. And overhead nearly 150 people peered down from two 32-ton concrete walkways — one two stories up, the other four stories up — both suspended by 1.5-inch thick steel rods.
As the band played Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” the cement ripped from the wall. Then a crack as the fourth-floor walkway plunged and landed on the second-floor walkway. Another split second and both slammed to the hotel floor like monstrous confetti. Dozens of people disappeared.
“For a half second, there was silence,” Brigid Cleary, a 23-year-old nurse, later told Newsweek. She heard the tinkling of broken glass and the stream of water from broken pipes. A soft white dust filled the air. “The music stopped then everybody started screaming.”
Disembodied limbs sprouted from the wreckage; bodies lie in halves; necks snapped. Some skin had already turned blue. “It all looked like a human sandwich — arms and legs hanging out,” said 27-year-old salesman Michael Lonshar.
It was 7:05 p.m.
In the minutes following the crash, survivors cried for missing loved ones and tried to pry boulders off broken bodies. One woman had a heart attack. Trapped victims tried to soothe each other. “An old lady was on top of my ankle screaming,” said Betty Nelson, who was later rescued. “I said to her, ‘Be calm, breathe deep,’ but she kept struggling. I felt her last movement. She’s dead.”
Emergency personnel rushed the hotel. They heard cries from beneath the rubble and pumped in oxygen via small tubes. Periodically, the triage supervisor, Dr. Joseph Waeckerle, whistled for workers to be silent so he could locate more cries for help. Rescue workers hooked up IVs and administered pain medication. They determined one man pinned down by a steel beam would not survive without amputation; when he finally gave in, doctors took a chainsaw to his leg. He later died.
Construction crews hurried in bulldozers. However, with so many people still trapped, the machines were useless. Instead they called for cranes, forklifts, and concrete-cutting saws. Overhead, a third walkway still hung from the ceiling. It was cracked.
A triage center was erected in a hallway. The parking structure became a temporary morgue. A priest picked through the victims, delivering the Catholic rite of Anointing the Sick. According to The Kansas City Star, which won a Pulitzer for its Hyatt Regency disaster reporting, he asked one trapped man how he was doing. The man responded, “Well, my Timex is still going.”
After nine-and-a-half hours, Mark Williams was the last survivor pulled from the wreckage. Exhausted rescuers nearly drilled him with a jackhammer trying to break apart the slab that pinned him down.
After 12 hours, the workers thought they had cleared most of the bodies. But at 7:15 a.m. Saturday morning, they lifted the final slab. Beneath it, 31 more people lay crushed to death.
In all, the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse killed 114 people and injured more than 200; 18 pairs of husbands and wives perished. The disaster left thousands of family members with decades of pain, grief, depression, anger, and resentment. Kansas City was plunged into despair.
To make matters worse, no one knew who to blame. Investigations dragged on for months. The Hyatt had started construction in 1978, and opened in 1980. It was the 40-story anchor in a fashionable commercial complex called the Crown Center, and would be the tallest building in the state of Missouri until 1986. Owned by Hallmark, Inc., the building’s design was unique but not particularly complicated. Some witnesses said they saw the walkways swaying and bouncing with people’s movement, but in a statement two days after the collapse, Pat Foley, president of the Hyatt Hotel chain, insisted “the catwalks were designed to hold people shoulder to shoulder, as many as you can jam in there.”
In February of 1982, survivors and their families finally got some answers. During construction of the hotel, design elements had been changed. As the Kansas City Public Library’s KC History describes it, “The original design had called for sets of support rods to suspend the fourth and second floor walkways from the ceiling. Instead, the designs were changed so that a second set of rods hung the second floor walkway from the fourth floor walkway. This arrangement made the upper walkway support its own weight as well as the weight from the walkway below instead of suspending all of the weight directly from the stronger ceiling supports.” Held only by small nuts and undersized washers, the rods ripped through the box beams that day.
Investigators ruled out the weight or motion of walkway guests as a significant factor in the collapse. In fact, support was deemed inefficient for the weight of the walkways by themselves. The decision was likely made to save time and money. Somehow, the construction passed inspection.
After the collapse, the engineers lost their licenses but no criminal charges were filed. The engineer on record told investigators that the final build was based on a hastily made design concept that never should have been built, and the required approval for it was gained over the phone. During building, the requisite engineering supervision was delegated, and subcontractors were hired to complete the skywalks.
The Crown Center Development Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Hallmark, paid $140 million in damages to victims and their families.
Mark Williams spent two months in the hospital. His leg turned black and became so swollen than doctors made incisions to relieve the pressure. After his kidneys shut down, he went on dialysis. Through it, he performed physical therapy and eventually graduated to a wheelchair, then crutches, then a cane. Feeling returned to his leg and he began to walk independently, though with a limp.
“I found out more of what I was made of and maybe became not so self-centered,” Williams told Star Magazine. “Most people are never tested, so they never find out what they can be.”
About 10 years later, Williams returned to the hotel. He “felt drawn” to the spot where he lay crushed under tons of broken building. Above him, construction crews had repaired the damage — installing one second-floor walkway, supported by columns rather than suspension rods.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Hallmark donated $25,000 to a memorial fund for victims and rescue workers. Hyatt said it would not contribute, as the hotel location was now a Sheraton. The latter donated $5,000. The Skywalk Memorial was dedicated on November 12, 2015 in Hospital Hill Park, which lies in the shadow of the former Hyatt Regency.
Read the rest of our Structural Failure Week coverage:
This tragic mill collapse killed mostly women, after industrialists put profit before safety
The Pemberton mill imploded and then caught fire