July 24, 2014

The 1981 Hyatt Regency Collapse of Kansas City

On July 17th, 1981, one of the premier hotels in Kansas City suffered a catastrophic structural collapse that killed dozens of people and became a textbook case study for universities throughout the world.  I still pass the building and am struck by how many people were wiped out, instantly, with only a few seconds’ notice as they were in the lobby.  To be exact, it was 114 people that died, some of them after hours of being trapped in debris.  Another 216 were severely injured.  Until the attacks of September 11th, 2001, it remained the worst, and deadliest, structural failure in the history of the country.

It made me realize the people that are most important to a civilization are often those that go unnoticed; those that protect the systematic and physical infrastructure upon which everything else is based.  The accountants.  The engineers.  The construction workers.  If they screw up, it all fails.  Yet, they rarely get the glory when things go right.

A&E did a special on it a long time ago.  The five parts are now posted on YouTube and I made the (mistake?) of watching them this evening.  I regret it now, but it’s a bit of history that is important.  It makes me feel so upset for those lives that were changed.  People lost their spouses, their children.  It was horrific.

If you see an engineer or construction worker, thank them.  What they’re doing is just as important as doctors, CEOs, or other “elite” professions.

If you’re interested in learning more about the collapse, a very detailed mathematical analysis of the cause was done by the government, which you can download online.  I tried to post it, but it’s almost 400 pages of very technical diagrams so I couldn’t get it below 54 megabytes.

I need to find something a little lighter to watch while I work now.  That was intense, probably because I drive by the hotel frequently enough to connect with the locations shown.

  • Jep

    Yes, that was studied in the first semester of engineering school. Also other disasters like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. St. Francis Dam and Challenger shuttle. Sometimes it was the weakest link caused it and others it was the total of minor errors. Success stories too like I met someone the other day whose father was at NASA and helped bring Apollo 13 back.

  • segfault

    The Wikipedia entry is fairly instructive on the heartlessness of some corporations, to the point that I think both Hyatt and Starwood have committed public relations gaffes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyatt_Regency_walkway_collapse

    “The tragedy is not marked in any way in the hotel.”

    Well, that seems kind of insensitive of the current owner (Starwood).

    “Hyatt Hotels informed the Skywalk Memorial Foundation that it would not contribute to a memorial fund because the hotel is no longer managed by Hyatt and has become a Sheraton hotel.”

    Really? Over a hundred people killed, over $100,000,000 paid in legal settlements and judgments, and not one dime for a memorial which might imply that your company bore some responsibility to protect its guests from such a tragedy?

    “…Starwood Hotels and Resorts, decided to donate $5,000…”

    This makes Hyatt’s donation of $0 seem even more tightfisted. Starwood bears zero responsibility for the collapse, as they didn’t buy an interest in the hotel until many years later.

  • Jkaiser

    I didnt see it in the Wiki, but here is a nice simple analogy to explain why that simple modification to the design was so bad. Imagine you and a buddy are going to hang from a rope. Rope is super strong. You hop up and grab the rope. Your buddy sneaks in under you and grabs the rope. No problem. No imgine if after you jumped and grabbed hold, your buddy was a little lazy and decided to just hop up and grab your belt. Big problem. In the first case, your hands are holding your weight only. In the second your hands are holding your weight and the weight of lazy bob.

  • JohnR – Illinois

    Joshua – Thanks for putting this article together, complete with the video documentary. I found this purely by accident, but was immediately engulfed by these accounts.

    This is particularly significant for me, as my family stayed at this Hyatt Regency during a trip to KC, sometime between its opening, and this terrible tragedy.

    The impressions that remain for me are 1) Getting pinned in the middle of one of the elevators with Oakland Raiders defensive line. I remember thinking that humans do not grow that large. 2) Observing the large, open-space lobby from the 2nd floor deck. looking toward the front of the building. Truly a visually impressive structural design.

    I say this, because it provides a haunting retrospective in my mind.

    It was not surprising to see the city of friends (and strangers) bond together in the immediate, and ensuing aftermath.

    A truly powerful and moving account in its own right. This is a story that deserves re-telling. Never to be forgotten.