Published July 13th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
This Saturday morning, a modest ceremony is planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hyatt Regency Kansas City skywalks collapse.
There are no plans for an elaborate program, a huge podium, or numerous rows of chairs for attendees.
“We all mark time In different ways, but it is a significant event in all of our lives and the history of our city,” said Brent Wright, president of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation.
“We felt we should have a gathering.”
The foundation led a 10-year effort to get the Skywalk Memorial Plaza built in Hospital Hill Park at 22nd Street and Gillham Road.
Wright’s mother and stepfather, Karen and Eugene Jeter, were among the 114 victims of the collapse on the evening of July 17, 1981. Wright will once again return to the memorial as he has every anniversary since it was dedicated in November 2015.
The Skywalk Memorial is not only in the shadow of the hotel where the tragedy occurred, but the park can be seen by Wright from his 11th floor law office window.
“From time to time I will walk over there – I usually go by myself,” Wright said.
“It’s peaceful to me. It’s nice to go somewhere and reflect on those things. It doesn’t mean that sometimes it’s not painful and it brings up some of those memories you try not to hang on to, but in the end it has done some good for me.”
It was on the 25th anniversary of the disaster that Wright first thought about trying to get a memorial built.
“I looked some people up and called them and thought maybe we’ll talk,” Wright said. “Sure enough, a group of us got together.”
The 2008 recession delayed fundraising efforts, and then the group faced a long process of finding a location and completing the memorial’s design and construction.
“As it turned out, ultimately the location was ideal under the circumstances,” Wright said.
“It is in a park. It is a peaceful place. You can go there and remember, you can reflect, you can pay your respects, you can learn a little bit about Kansas City history even if you don’t know anything about it. That was the idea.”
Of course, the memorial is very personal for Wright and several others involved in the project. But it is meant to be more.
“It wasn’t just about us,” Wright said. “It was about something much bigger than just our small group. It was doing something for the community.”
Wright said those who lost family members could, like him, visit a cemetery.
”But what about a place for all those who were injured? What about a place for all the first responders, the firefighters, the ambulance drivers, police officers, all those people who worked from all over the metro area? There was nowhere where they could go. There was nowhere for all those people to be formally recognized.”
Vincent Ortega was among those who helped that night 40 years ago.
In fact, he was the first to respond.
The Hyatt was in his dispatch area as a Kansas City police officer. When that fact was highlighted at Ortega’s retirement as deputy chief in 2006, he was approached to join the Skywalk Memorial Foundation board.
“I said ‘absolutely’,” Ortega said. “After the disaster I really avoided that place because it was hallowed ground. Not only did several people die but it affected a lot of families.”
Ortega was the first officer to respond after the skywalks collapsed shortly after 7 p.m. during a Friday evening tea dance. Following police procedures, he was the officer responsible for the formal report. He was on the scene through that night before leaving the scene about 4 a.m. on Saturday.
Ortega can only remember returning to the hotel once in the 40 years since, and that was because he was required to attend a function.
“I was kind of nervous about it,” Ortega said. “I walked in there, looked around and it was kind of daunting because the last time I was there it was rubble – and now people were just hustling and bustling, and drinking and having fun.
“I know what happened there. That’s another reason for the memorial – that business continued on.” (The hotel now operates as the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center.)
Ortega does visit the memorial.
“In fact, I have been down there this year just because we had some friends in town and they have heard about it,” Ortega said. “Sometimes, if I am in the area, I will just drive by to see if it is maintained. I don’t know if the word closure is appropriate. I think there is a lot of mixed emotions. You first think about what really happened, and then I think about the years that have passed.”
Ortega has also spoken about the effects of the tragedy to engineers.
“I have told them that as an engineer, think about the people who actually will be living in these buildings, staying in these buildings, traveling to a city to stay in these buildings,” Ortega said.
“You want to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Ortega’s talk is at the invitation of another foundation board member – Kansas City attorney Bill Quatman.
Quatman has always felt the memorial was a worthy way to ensure that those who lost their lives and those who helped that tragic night are remembered.
But there is something more that should not be forgotten: Why the skywalks fell. The collapse ultimately was traced to failure of the connections between the fourth-story box beams and the hanger rods supporting the second-story and fourth-story walkways.
For the past 20 years, Quatman has spoken to professionals about why the skywalk collapsed. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Quatman had online speaking engagements with an architecture school in Georgia, a local engineering firm and a nationwide group of lawyers.
“The takeaway from the skywalks collapse is that it was a very small detail that failed on a large project,” Quatman said. “I tell the young architects and engineers you cannot overlook the small details.
“It is amazing the number of people who I would give the talk to who never heard of it before or who had heard of it but had some false conclusion about what happened.”
Quatman was a 23-year-old architect just out of college in July 1981.
“I was very aware of the effect on the architectural community, not just locally but nationwide,” Quatman said. “The profession was just in shock thinking, ‘That could have been my project’.”
Quatman went on to get a law degree. His feelings about the Hyatt collapse changed after a conversation with another lawyer who believed the skywalks fell because there was rocking back and forth on the skywalks.
“And then I went online and started to look at what was out there and there were so many false theories,” Quatman said.
“People latch onto those things,” Quatman said. “They think that must have been the cause.”
He needed to speak about the facts.
Quatman said often out of tragedy comes a useful reaction to do something.
“With the Hyatt collapse there were actual changes in the building codes that are still in place today,” he said.
Also, he said, there are improvements in construction nationwide that would not have happened if not for the Hyatt skywalks collapse.
“Some good did come out of it and did affect architecture and it affects buildings today.” Quatman said.
He also visits the memorial.
“I don’t go to grieve or remember some of the names as other families do,” Quatman said. “I show out-of-town visitors or family members because I am proud we accomplished that.”
Quatman said there is a lot to appreciate about the memorial.
In addition to the elegant sculpture and the soft and natural landscape, the plaza’s openness gives visitors a chance to sit and reflect, read the names of the victims, with the hotel nearby.
But what strikes Quatman about the memorial is when he looks down.
“The concrete pattern below is concentric circles, and the architects’ concept is this had a ripple effect,” Quatman said.
“It affected the families, it affected the community and it affected the nation, and the ripples went out to affect the world really in terms of its impact.”
Quatman said he is concerned that the recent condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida, might suffer from the same mistaken theories that plagued the Hyatt skywalks collapse.
“If you go online there are so many theories about what happened to those Florida condos,” he said. “Nobody knows. We won’t know until they dig all the rubble out. The takeaway is nobody knows. Just don’t speculate.”
Ortega said there will be a difference in the help given to first responders in Florida than what happened in Kansas City – and likely because of the lessons learned at the Hyatt tragedy.
“ ‘Emergency management’ wasn’t even a word then,” Ortega said. “Back then nobody knew about secondary trauma. They offered counseling but that was only after it was affecting people.
“I have some good friends who were there that night and that was the last time they returned to the job. It was so horrific that they changed careers.”
Wright also has watched the news coverage from Surfside.
“You can’t help but think about those people down there in Florida. They are hoping, they are grieving, they are wondering what happened and they are not getting answers. In that respect, it’s similar. Nothing is exactly the same.
“I look back at those things at times like this and see people who are going through what is unimaginable and horrible. My heart goes out to them. I pray for them and of what they must be going through and I know a little bit of what they must be feeling at this point.”
Wright said people have choices when faced with such overwhelming tragedy and grief. He chose to move forward and “make something good” from an awful tragedy.
“And to make sure people don’t forget even though it has been 40 years. It is a part of Kansas City’s history and it should be remembered.”
This Saturday will be a poignant anniversary for the foundation’s board members.
The Skywalk Memorial Foundation will dissolve and its board members will no longer have formal meetings following this anniversary.
“Our purpose has been fulfilled,” Wright said.
It’s a difficult closure because board members have become friends through their unique connection.
“On one hand you are a little sad that that chapter has ended. But on the other hand you look back grateful – for all the people I have met and all the wonderful stories I’ve gotten to hear,” Wright said. “I’m thankful I was able to be a part of that.”
“This doesn’t mean we won’t go over to the memorial,” Wright said. “I imagine I will go over there the rest of my days.”
Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.