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.

Really, Chernobyl Was Not As Bad As You Believe

Rarely has one of my postings generated so many negative comments (email and in-person) as my contention that only* 50-60 deaths can be attributed to Chernobyl as of 2005.  So, I am revisiting the issue briefly. Here are the exact words of the United Nations’ report:

As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.

That is the source of my contention. The report also says,

A total of up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.

“Up to” and “could eventually” almost certainly overstates the case because, if you read further, these are all cancer deaths and there is no provision for people who would have contracted cancer “naturally” (i.e., without Chernobyl).

The report goes on to say,

Dr. Repacholi concludes that “the health effects of the accident were potentially horrific, but when you add them up using validated conclusions from good science, the public health effects were not nearly as substantial as had at first been feared”.

All forms of energy have risk. My point is that if Chernobyl is the worst that could occur (and it is because there was no containment structure), then nuclear power — even with the current technology — is “safe enough.” So, lets move on with the next generation — even safer and more economical — of nuclear power as quickly as possible.

* “Only” in comparison to the hundreds of thousands predicted. Every death is tragic.

UPDATE: A related post here.

Scientific Discussion of the Radiation Situation in Japan

If you would like to follow along as an engineer discusses, in a calm rational, manner the radiation situation in Japan, click here.

I especially like this comment:

“The important lesson from Japan is that we took obsolete reactors with old designs and safety features, and subjected them to a 9.0 quake and a very large tsunami, and the damage to the planet is an unfortunate but hardly decisive event. It is now time to stop worrying about this mess until things settle and we can see precisely what we have learned, and factor that into the next generation designs. Note that almost everywhere in the world we are building reactors with much better design and far better safety features than those being destroyed now. Concentration on how awful is the nuclear mess takes our attention off the economic and human disasters from the earthquake and tsunami.”

Nuclear Power in Perspective

There is no question that the events in Japan are ongoing and serious. That said, I believe a lot of people are being misled by much of the news coverage.  Take a look at these headlines from the Christian Science Monitor and from Channel News Asia, respectively,

and,

“Three Mile Island” and “Chernobyl” sounds scary, right?

Let me ask a couple of questions?  How many were killed by the Three Mile Island incident?

100?

10,000?

100,000?

Answer? None.  None of the plant workers were killed and no one in the surrounding area.

But, Chernobyl? We all saw the photos of the burning nuclear plant and the open reactor and the workers in radiation suits. “Experts” predicted numerous cancer deaths from “fallout.” Lots of people were killed in that, right? OK, let me ask again, how many do you think?

100?

10,000?

100,000?

The answer, after 20 years, (i.e., time for cancers to develop) the total number of people killed is 56. To put that twenty-year death toll in perspective, it was less than half of the number of people killed by tornadoes in the United States in 2008.

The situation in Japan still has to play out. We don’t know what the casualty numbers might be. But, please keep in mind that if it is “as bad as Three Mile Island” that is pretty good result. Take the ongoing news coverage with a huge grain of salt.

I do believe we should not build additional “old style” nuclear plants but new nuclear technology (i.e., thorium reactors) are extremely promising: Safer, less expensive, little or nothing that would be a problem in the hands of bad guys.

UPDATE: Reader Jim Johnson pointed out the recent tragic deaths associated with natural gas. Five killed in a pipeline explosion in Allentown, PA (not far from Three Mile Island) last month and eight killed six months ago in San Bruno, CA.

There is no source of energy that is without some risk. The challenge is to properly balance the risks.

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Why Does Construction Take So Long?

In July, I wrote:

The 236-mile Kansas Turnpike was constructed in 22 months from 1954 to 1956. That is more than ten miles per month. Presumably, we have better tools today. Why in the world does it take (literally) two years replace a single bridge (I-70 near Lawrence) or 18 months to rework ten miles of roadway? Does this strike anyone else as odd?

The Los Angeles Times has a column that makes a similar point:

It took 410 days to build the Empire State Building; four years to erect the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pentagon took two years; the Alaska Highway just nine months. These days it takes longer to build an overpass.

While I have some guesses, I have no idea why construction, once started, takes so long these days. It isn’t environmental regulation (once construction has started) as the Times suggests and, as I said, presumably we have better tools.

Does anyone have the answer? If you have expertise in this area, please write your thoughts in the comments area.  Thanks!