Deadline to break ground on Skywalk memorial set for October 2015 — or else

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Time is running out to raise money for the construction of a Skywalk Memorial in Kansas City. On the 33rd anniversary of this Hyatt skywalk collapse, supporters of the memorial project are stressing the importance of having a designated area to honor those who were hurt and killed in the tragedy.

“Just a place to reflect, a place to have peace and think about what happened 33 years ago,” said Vince Ortega, who is on the Skywalk Memorial Board. “That their deaths and injuries weren’t in vain. That something came out of it.”

Ortega is a former police officer and the first one to respond the Skywalk collapse. Back on July 17, 1981, around 7 p.m., the dispatcher told him a woman had fallen off an escalator. As he rushed to the newly built Hyatt Hotel on 23rd and McGee Streets, the dispatcher told him more calls of injuries were coming in. Nothing, though, could prepare him for what he saw when he walked inside.

“As I started going in, people were coming out and I could see them filled with blood,” Ortega said. “They saw the uniform and they just started grabbing me. As I went in to assess the scene, I could smell death. I saw death.”

A total of 114 people died while 216 others were injured. Before the World Trade Center buildings fell on 9/11, the skywalk collapse was the worst structural collapse in U.S. history. In the ensuing investigation, the blame turned to flawed engineering, specifically the way steel tie rods were used to hold the skywalks in place. Bitter feelings and lawsuits stalled efforts to build a memorial. Then in 2006, a group of survivors came together with hopes of finding a permanent place where people could go to reflect on the tragedy.

“A lot of lessons were learned from that,” Ortega said. “The way emergency first responders now respond,  it’s now called ‘all hazards approach.' It’s a lot more coordinated efforts. Also engineering. A lot of policies and procedures have changed within the city about the inspection of engineering on construction.”

The cost of the proposed Skywalk Memorial is $545,891. The Skywalk Memorial Board has raised 70 percent of the funding but still needs to collect $163,067 to make it a reality. The Kansas City Park Board recently released a deadline: Break ground on the memorial by October 15, 2015, or else risk not getting the memorial built at all.

Ortega says the victims “would definitely want to see this built. There was a lot of thought put into this. We hope that by this time next year we will be breaking ground -- or at least close to that.”

To learn more, you can go to www.skywalkmemorial.org.