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40 Years Later, Kansas Citians Mourn Lives Lost In The Hyatt Skywalk Collapse

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Friends, family and first responders touched by the collapse of two elevated walkways inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel gather Saturday around a sculpture commemorating lives lost.

It's been 40 years since two elevated walkways crashed onto a dance floor inside the Hyatt Regency hotel, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200.

Forty years ago, Lynn Driggers was getting ready to go out to dinner with her husband when she got the call. The Hyatt Regency, she was told, had "collapsed."

Driggers worked as a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, then located near the site at 28th Street and Main, and she'd been summoned to work to perform triage. But as she drove in, she could see the hotel still standing on the horizon. She remembers her confusion.

“It wasn’t until we got to the hospital that, by then, they were bringing bodies up to the hospital. Not just bodies. But people.”

“It was horrifying,” she says. “The bodies coming in.”

Driggers was 27 at the time of the deadly disaster: July 17, 1981.

“You train, and you hear, you prepare your supply closets for trauma," she says, decades later. But when something actually happens, "you go by nature, common sense, what to do.”

First responders like Driggers—along family and friends of those injured or killed—gathered Saturday at the Skywalk Memorial Plaza at corner of Gillham Road and 22nd Street. They convened to mark 40 years since the now-historic collapse of two suspended walkways in the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

The collapse killed 114 people. More than 200 were injured. It is still considered one of the deadliest structural building accidents in the country.

Kansas City Attorney Brent Wright lost his mother and stepfather that night.

“Unfortunately, a lot of us are members of a club that we didn’t want to join,” he said to the crowd gathered at the Skywalk Memorial on Saturday.

Wright is the president of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation. He delivered remarks on Saturday from a podium just a few feet from a metal sculpture depicting dancers in the air, a steel column etched with the names of those who died in the collapse. The memorial, completed in 2015, stands in the shadow of the former Hyatt Regency, now operating as the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Retired Kansas City Deputy Police Chief Vince Ortega speaks during a ceremony marking 40 years since the collapse of the catwalks inside the Hyatt Regency. In front of him is a portion of the sculpture in the Skywalk Memorial that bears the names of those killed.

On the evening of the skywalk collapse, people had gathered in the Hyatt Regency for a “tea dance” in the lobby. Revelers watched from the suspended 2nd and 4th floor walkways above the dancers. Reportedly, they began to sway with the weight of partygoers and then crashed down to the lobby, trapping people in rubble.

Following months of investigation, authorities concluded a design flaw caused the two floors to collapse under the weight of guests who had lined the walkways to look down on the festivities below.

Amy Watts lost her mother, Susan Moberg, in the collapse.

Watts, who was 20 at the time, had toured the hotel a few weeks prior to the accident. She'd visited a fine dining restaurant in the hotel, the Peppercorn Duck Club, for a culinary arts class. Watts remembers that the walkways had swayed when her classmates crossed them.

“We'd walk across those bridges. We were all the dumb 20- or 18-year-olds, Watts said. “So, we’re all jumping. I thought, ‘This is weird,' that these massive bridges were that jumpy.”

Watts still harbors anger over the loss and its aftermath, adding that the more recent condominium tower collapse in Surfside, Florida, brought back a lot of emotions.

“Engineering disasters have come to the forefront of the conversation,” she points out.

Retired Kansas City Deputy Police Chief Vince Ortega, a first responder the night of the collapse, said in his remarks that the lessons learned in Kansas City in 1981 helped inform rescue efforts in Surfside.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Minister John Drew, center, releases white doves Saturday as part of the remembrance of the 114 people killed in the 1981 catwalk collapse inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Ortega was the first officer dispatched to the collapse that night. The then-26-year-old police officer said, “There was nothing in my academy training that could have prepared me or the other first responders for what we witnessed that night.”

Ortega is now retired and serves as treasurer of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation.

“I want everybody to know that the individuals that lost their lives that evening did not die in vain,” Ortega told the crowd. “As a result of this tragic event, it forever changed the way first responders handle disasters, whether they are manmade or natural.”

He called the event a case study for disaster preparedness, setting the guidelines and principles for emergency management still implemented today.

The opportunity to reflect on the efforts of first responders and remember the lives lost provided some comfort to those gathered on Saturday.

Amy Watts recently moved back to the Kansas City area from Chicago, and the presence of the Skywalk Memorial is meaningful to her.

“It’s nice thing to have a place to go and, you know, a place to remember,” she said.

She brought her son and husband to Saturday’s event. She walked her son to the steel column to see the name of the grandparent he never met.

Luke Watts, 21, lamented not getting to know his grandmother.

“Growing up, we would always talk about it,” he says. “It kind of sucks," he adds. "I wish she was alive now so I could meet her.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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