For Many, a Memorial Long Overdue
Dan White/Kansas City Star, via Associated Press
On July 17, 1981, two 32-ton skywalks at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, Mo., collapsed into the hotel lobby, killing 114 people.
Dave Kaup for The New York Times
Frank Freeman, left, survived the collapse, and Brent Wright lost his mother and her husband.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the lounge at the top of the 40-story Hyatt Regency hotel, where people sip drinks and gaze at the twinkling skyline, there is no hint of the long-ago horror.
But for people like Brent Wright, it can never be forgotten. On July 17, 1981, Mr. Wright was 17 years old and working the loading docks at Macy’s, saving money for college, when he heard a radio bulletin about the hotel’s skywalk collapsing into a swing dance in the lobby. He tried to call his mother, Karen Jeter, wondering if she knew anyone there.
There was no answer.
“My mother was the talker, the hugger,” Mr. Wright, now a 45-year-old lawyer, said as he fought to choke back tears. “She liked popcorn. She liked tennis. And she liked to dance.”
Mr. Wright is a member of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, which is leading a movement to build a memorial to the 114 people who lost their lives in the collapse
, including his 37-year-old mother and her husband, Eugene Jeter. It was said to be the worst structural disaster in the nation’s history.
After 27 years, there is not so much as a memorial plaque to commemorate the tragedy.
“It was fresh for a very long time,” Mr. Wright said. “It has taken this long for people to work through the grief.”
The foundation is raising money to build a garden and a fountain in Washington Square Park, about a block from the hotel, dedicated to the victims and survivors of the collapse, along with those who helped with the rescue. In a significant boost for the plans, the Hallmark company, which owns the hotel site through a subsidiary, has pledged $25,000 toward the cost, and the city has agreed to put up $100,000.
Although there are no plans to commemorate the actual accident site, the Hyatt Regency recently released a brief statement of support for the memorial in the park, noting that “the hotel and our associates continue to honor the lives of those that were lost.” An assistant to Rusty Macy, the general manager at the hotel, said the hotel would not comment beyond the statement.
The foundation still needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the memorial, which would require the approval of the city parks board.
Some people here see the Hyatt catastrophe as a modern-day Titanic sinking that set back the revival of downtown. The gleaming hotel, just a year old at the time, was the tallest structure in Kansas City, and its regular tea dances had drawn many residents back to a once-sleepy section of the city.
“It was the big buzz around town,” said Heather McMichael, a former television anchor who now works for a law firm doing pro bono work for the memorial campaign.
The dance that Friday evening had drawn about 2,000 people. When the two 32-ton walkways crashed to the floor at 7:05 p.m., a band was playing “Satin Doll.”
A video of the event shows revelers in high spirits, among them Karen and Eugene Jeter, swing-dancing and laughing in the last moments of their lives.
A highly critical investigation found a design flaw in the walkways’ suspension systems. Jack D. Gillum and Associates, the engineering firm that approved the final plans, was stripped of its license. Lapses were found in construction practices and the city’s enforcement arms. About $140 million was awarded to victims and their families, much of it paid by the Crown Center Corporation, a Hallmark subsidiary.
Kansas City’s progressive self-image was damaged, and a deep sadness draped the city for a long time. In the view of Richard L. Berkley, then the mayor, there was a reluctance to memorialize the tragedy.
“There was a feeling you didn’t want to remind people of it,” Mr. Berkley said.
Frank Freeman, now 64, survived the collapse, but he lost his partner, Roger Girgsby. He remembers hearing a “popping sound” of the breaking rods that held up the walkways, and then being showered with debris. In the instant after the crash, there was an eerie silence. Moments later, there was screaming.
When the authorities urged Mr. Freeman to go to the hospital, he initially refused. “I’m not leaving until I find Roger,” he said. The next day, he identified a picture of his partner at the morgue.
In some ways, Mr. Freeman is still looking for Roger, still unwilling to leave the hotel. On the 25th anniversary of the disaster, he stood outside the Hyatt Regency in 100-degree heat and soaking air, holding a sign that declared, “114 people deserve a memorial.”
Mr. Wright, now married with two young daughters, said the girls had plenty of questions about their grandmother, especially when the television news recounted the disaster. He and his sister, Shelly, 43, who has four daughters, have made a Mother’s Day tradition of going to brunch and then visiting the cemetery.
They take pictures of the family standing near his mother’s gravestone and tell stories about her. She was bright, stylish and something of a character. “She wasn’t afraid to act a little goofy,” Mr. Wright said. He feels certain she would get a kick out of their ritual, and relish the attention.
Mr. Wright said he even believed he knew what she would tell them: “Don’t cry the rest of our lives — but don’t forget your mother.”
learn more about this structural failure at wikipedia
Kansas City's Hyatt Regency is a 504 foot, 40-story hotel built in 1980. It was KC's tallest tower until 1986. The 1981 disaster was the deadliest structural collapse in U.S. history.
NBC's Nightline from the night of the disaster
• Video Link