The Hyatt Regency Disaster — 30 Years Ago Tonight

Kansas City Star

From time to time, I have talked about the things that had to be left out of Warnings. My first draft would have resulted in a book of more than 500 pages and neither I, nor my editor and publisher, thought people would want to read a book that long.

One of the things that was left out of the book was the story of the week I decided to create WeatherData. Throughout the summer of 1981, I had been in negotiations with my employer, KTVI of St. Louis, on a new contract. The contract I had would run out in August.

I also had an offer to go back to Wichita that would result in me fulfilling my ultimate career goal of starting a commercial weather company. After a long period of discussions, I decided to return to Wichita. I called my parents with the news on Tuesday, July 14. Dad told me they thought I had made the right decision and, while they were invited to a “tea dance” with some friends Friday evening (17th), they would cancel and come to celebrate the birth of my weather company (it didn’t have a name yet) with Kathleen, Richard and me.

After the 6 o’clock news, the five of us went out to dinner at St. Louis’ Pasta House Company and, after, I returned to KTVI to prepare the 10pm weathercast. Kathleen, Richard, Mom and Dad (in a second car) came back to the station for a little while. I wandered into the newsroom to check in with our 10pm producer, Dave Cleggern. Then, for some reason, I walked into the teletype room where the Associated Press and other wires were clacking away. I saw the AP wire print out, (paraphrasing)

URGENT —
COLLAPSE AT HYATT REGENCY HOTEL, FIRE/RESCUE UNITS CALLED

I ripped the story and took it to Dave and Larry Conners (then and now, a very popular St. Louis anchor) and said, “for some reason, I think this is a very big deal.” They got on the phone and confirmed it was a very big deal indeed. In those days, one could get on an airplane quickly and, even though it was about 8:15 or so, Larry was broadcasting — live — from KC at the end of the 10pm newscast.

After I told Larry and Dave, I returned to the weather department and told my parents. We didn’t know the seriousness of the collapse at that point, but they were very concerned their friends might have gone to the tea dance without them (their friends were fine). They went to our home to watch the later news coverage.

Kansas City Star. Surviving third floor walkway can be seen at upper-left.
The photo is oriented along the second floor walkway. The fourth floor walkway was directly
above the second floor’s (just above and out of the picture).

There were three walkways across the atrium of the Hyatt with the second and fourth floor walkways directly on top of each other. All three were filled with people listening to the Big Band music. Trumpeter Stan Kessler was playing “Satin Doll” when it happened. Due to a design change during construction (the hotel was just a year old) and a design failure, the fourth floor skywalk collapsed onto the second floor skywalk and then they both plunged to the atrium floor below.

A mis-designed washer and bolt assembly pulled through the bottom of
the metal “box beam” causing the entire structure to collapse. 

The Hyatt Regency collapse killed 114 and is the worst building engineering disaster in the history of the United States and the eighth worst engineering disaster overall.

Wikipedia has a good summary here. The Kansas City Star has an excellent commemorative web site . A graphic explaining what went wrong is here.

The Star has also produced a book about the disaster titled, “The Last Dance.” You can read a chapter and order a copy here.

You might wonder why, except for personal reasons, I wrote about this in a first draft of a book about meteorologists creating the storm warning system. It is because this disaster fascinated me (I have a college minor in engineering) and kindled my interest in forensics and forensic meteorology. This led to me starting work in the field after WeatherData was created and culminated in my work in the Delta 191 crash four years later. Delta 191 is the subject of three chapters of Warnings.

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