KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This weekend marks 40 years since the deadliest non-deliberate structural failure in U.S. history.
When the Skywalk at the Hyatt Regency collapsed, 114 people were killed in Kansas City and more than 200 injured. A memorial was dedicated in 2015 near the site of what is now a Sheraton Hotel.
Former Kansas City Police Officer Vince Ortega was originally dispatched on a report of an elderly woman who had fallen down the escalator on July 17, 1981. He’d arrive to find it was a tragedy not connected to terrorism unlike any Kansas City or most of the rest of the country had witnessed before or since until last month’s collapse of a condo building in Surfside, Florida.
“I remember it as clear as day. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Mark McGonigle said.
The 20-year-old and his brother didn’t have much time before entering the dance contest at the Tea Dance at Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency. But they took time to check out one feature of the hotel that had opened the year prior.
“It was kind of the feature of the building, the Skywalk they called it. This magic bridge that seemed to be hanging in the middle of the air,” he said.
About a minute into the first song, McGonigle remembers a loud noise and a cloud of dust coming from just a few feet behind him.
“We went toward the calamity to try to see if we could help. There was obviously a tremendous amount of suffering,” he said.
More than 100 people were killed and over 200 were injured when the skywalks connecting the 2nd and 4th floors collapsed.
“To this day, people in Kansas City think those walks fell because of music or dancing,” said Bill Quatman, an architect and attorney.
But it was later determined to be a design defect. A single rod was supposed to support the twin skywalks from floor to ceiling, but they ended up essentially hanging one walkway from the other, leaving it to try to support more than 70 tons of the 120-foot walkways.
“They were failing from the day they were built. The steel was bending from the moment they were built from the weight of the structure,” said Quatman, who would later serve as general counsel for Burns and McDonnell.
The tragedy changed building codes and modern engineering across the country, including the adaption of special inspectors in the field.
“I told the young engineers you need to pay attention to every detail, not just the big stuff, but the little things because the thing that failed was a small part of a large project,” Quatman said.
The tragedy also had a profound impact on families who lost loved ones that day and the estimated 1,500 survivors.
McGonigle remembers the man with his ear hanging off he worked alongside to try to clear rubble, and one man he couldn’t save.
“I just kind of instinctively knelt down and grabbed his hand and just said, ‘I’m praying with you,’” McGonigle said.
He spent 38 years trying to figure out who the man was who grabbed his hand three times before dying. In 2019, McGonigle was able to connect with the widow of Robert Jonas.
“She was grateful to know that he wasn’t alone,” he said.
The Skywalk Memorial near 22nd Street and Gillham Road took 34 years to be built because it was a dark day a lot of people didn’t want to remember.
But people behind the memorial’s construction say there’s a lot of heroism and humanity that night that shouldn’t be forgotten. They’ll gather at the memorial to share more of those stories Saturday at 10 a.m. on the 40th anniversary, July 17.