Hyatt Regency collapse: United States witnesses the deadliest accidental structure collapse 40 years ago today 

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On July 17, hundreds of people arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Mo., for a “tea dance”. What seemed like a usual summer night in 1981 turned out nothing like planned. 

Karen Jeter, 37, and her husband, Eugene, 48, who had been married a few weeks before, were among them.

Media teams were also present at the Hyatt Regency that evening to capture the social gathering in the hotel lobby. Brent Wright, Karen’s son would subsequently see footage of Karen and Eugene Jeter on a national news broadcast years later witnessing their beautiful chemistry. 

Brent Wright, Karen’s son said that the video had his stepfather and mother dancing, laughing, and having a great time. Nevertheless, they knew that those moments were Jeters’ last. 

Hyatt Residency became the epicenter of a tragedy. Among hundreds of people present, 114 were killed when two elevated walkways came loose from their support rods and crashed into the throng below. It left more than 200 people wounded leaving a crumpled mass of rubble for rescuers to sift. This is called the biggest failure in U.S. history. 

How the events led to Hyatt Regency collapse

The Hyatt Regency Hotel, 1,500 miles away, was celebrating its second summer open to the public in 1981, the same year the Champlain Towers South condo complex in Surfside was built.

The concrete “sky bridges” suspended above the lobby were a standout element of the new, 40-story hotel in the heart of Missouri’s largest city.

They would also be the ones to doom it. Following the collapse, investigators would come to the conclusion that an apparently small design modification had led to the catastrophe.

The raised pathways were supported by rods attached to the atrium ceiling. However, the second-floor walkway was linked to the fourth-floor walkway rather than the roof. That means the fourth-floor walkway was carrying twice as much weight as it was designed to. The throng increased in the lobby as well as on the sky bridges, where people congregated to get a bird’s-eye view of the activities below, as the July 17 tea dance progressed.

Then, all of a sudden, the sky bridges on the second and fourth floors began to shake before falling and smashing down into the lobby, killing several revelers and trapping others beneath the broken concrete.

Dr. Joseph F. Waeckerle, who had recently left as the medical director of Kansas City to assume a job at a local hospital, was one of the first rescuers on the site. He spent around 12 hours at the site reducing people from this devastating tragedy. 

Waeckerle said that you have to comprehend the mayhem and devastation that had occurred in that lobby. When the skywalks fell, the water was still flowing, but the mains were severed. Electrical cables were dangling from the ceiling, arcing and sparking and the whole place fell into complete darkness. 

Even Waeckerle, who had previously reacted to numerous tragedies, was taken aback by the spectacle at the Hyatt Regency.

“Like everybody else I shut my eyes for a moment and said, ‘Gee whiz, what am I doing here?’ and said a little prayer and prayed that I could do the best I can,” he said. “And then got on with it.”

Rescue personnel worked all night, using cranes and other heavy gear to lift the enormous concrete chunks that formed up much of the pile. First responders went to considerable efforts to free people who were stuck beneath immovable rubble, even amputating limbs to do so.

The news arrived next morning to Wright and his sister that Karen and Eugene Jeter were victims of the tragedy. “It was unimaginable. You never expect that 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 shocking, and it’s almost too horrible to even believe.”

Takeaways for U.S. and Hyatt Residency 

Following the collapse, the engineering company that approved the skywalk plans lost its licenses, and Regency’s owner paid $140 million in reparations to victims’ families.

Civil engineers are still attentively studying the fatal structural breakdown, which serves as a warning tale for similar projects.

First responders, according to Waeckerle, learned lessons from working on the collapse site, such as how to enhance communications, which he says is “usually the biggest difficulty” in a disaster.

He advised first responders who were still searching for survivors and victims of the Surfside condo collapse to follow the official standards of emergency management while still maintaining an emotional connection with the victims and survivors.

Control and order must be followed. Keep track of communications. Never lose hope. And never lose sight of your patients’ dignity, Waeckerle emphasized.

Wright, who now works with the Skywalk Memorial Foundation to remember the victims of the fall and the first responders who came in to assist, said he knows what many families of those who died in the Surfside catastrophe are going through.

Wright asked the victims’ loved ones to keep looking for answers about what occurred, and he noted that a period of excruciating loss lay ahead for many.

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