The Beginning of Urban Heavy Rescue
July 19, 2017 8:50 AM   Subscribe

On July 17, 1981 a suspended walkway collapsed in The Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, killing 114 people and injuring 216 others during a tea dance. At the time, it was the deadliest structural collapse in U.S. history.
Construction difficulties resulted in a subtle but flawed design change that doubled the load on the connection between the fourth floor walkway support beams and the tie rods carrying the weight of both walkways. This new design was barely adequate to support the dead load weight of the structure itself, much less the added weight of the spectators.

The connection failed and the fourth floor walkway collapsed onto the second floor and both walkways then fell to the lobby floor below...

[Additional info and links at Hotel Horror, a page on kchistory.org from the Kansas City Public Library.]
posted by misskaz (41 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
And more nightmare fuel for my anxiety whenever I'm in a public space with lots of people.
posted by Fizz at 8:55 AM on July 19, 2017 [5 favorites]


.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:03 AM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


Oh man, a while ago I fell down a Wikipedia hole reading about this disaster. Horrifying.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:09 AM on July 19, 2017 [4 favorites]


I remember this very faintly (I was a young teenager in another country when it happened). At at least two points in TFA, my jaw dropped:
The rescue operation lasted well into the next morning and was carried out by a veritable army of emergency personnel, including 34 fire trucks, and paramedics and doctors from five area hospitals. Dr. Joseph Waeckerle directed the rescue effort setting up a makeshift morgue in the ruined lobby and turning the hotel’s taxi ring into a triage center, helping to organize the wounded by highest need for medical care. Those who could walk were instructed to leave the hotel to simplify the rescue effort, the fatally injured were told they were going to die and given morphine.

Workmen from a local construction company were also hired by the city fire department, bringing with them cranes, bulldozers, jackhammers and concrete-cutting power saws.

The biggest challenge to the rescue operation came when falling debris severed the hotel’s water pipes, flooding the lobby and putting trapped survivors at great risk of drowning. As the pipes were connected to water tanks, as opposed to a public source, the flow could not be shut off.

Eventually, Kansas City’s fire chief realized that the hotel’s front doors were trapping the water in the lobby. On his orders, a bulldozer was sent in to rip out the doors, which allowed the water to pour out of the lobby and thus eliminated the danger to survivors.
When I think of structural collapses in buildings, I do not think of medical personnel delivering a triage-based coup de grace, or the chances of drowning in a hotel lobby.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:14 AM on July 19, 2017 [16 favorites]


Truly a tragedy. Here's an YouTube video I once watched about it, that provides a good explanation of what happened.
posted by defenestration at 9:17 AM on July 19, 2017 [10 favorites]


defenestration, does that video have any graphic images or anything like that? I'm not sure I could handle that, or is it more a straight forward documentary/news style footage about the incident?
posted by Fizz at 9:19 AM on July 19, 2017


Fizz: it is mostly talking heads with a few diagrams and one or two shots of debris being examined after the fact. Small scope for trauma here.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:22 AM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


I remember 6 year old me hearing about this so clearly and basically being scared of any sort of walkway until I was an adult. Fortunately, I was a small town kid who didn't encounter them much but trips to anywhere with a raised floor basically freaked me out. For somebody who is willing to do a lot of (dumb) stuff, I'm still not great with heights and I never realized this is probably one of the reasons why.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


The youtube video has a very good explanation of the design flaw. In the original design, it is as if there are two people, one above the other each hanging on a rope. Each person has the same grip force on the rope and can maintain their hold.

In the flawed redesign, the person below isn't holding onto the rope but instead hanging on the ankles of the person above. That means the person above must maintain a grip with twice the force to hold both people's weight simultaneously. That doubling of force on one connection is what caused the failure.

The failure was not the rods, which were sufficient to hold the structures. The failure was in the connections to the rods.
posted by JackFlash at 9:34 AM on July 19, 2017 [23 favorites]


This tragedy was used during my first Engineering Ethics class -- what a horrible and incredibly effective way to teach young engineers about a lot of important things in your future jobs.
posted by introp at 9:38 AM on July 19, 2017 [13 favorites]


Learned about this from an episode of Seconds from Disaster, which is a show you should know about if you (like me) are fascinated by breaking down how these kinds of things happen.

See also: Sampoong Department Store Collapse, where an entire five-story department store pancaked.

From all this I have learned that if you feel like something is wrong -- even if it's small -- speak up. So often it seems like these events occur because of a series of small, careless decisions. The way I see it, I'd rather ask a dumb question and break the fail chain rather than become part of it.
posted by offalark at 9:51 AM on July 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


The thing that's always gotten to me the most, beyond the sheer horror of the deaths and injuries of course, is that the two engineers in charge were stripped of their licenses by Missouri, but continued to hold licenses and to work in other states.

Ye gods.
posted by easily confused at 10:18 AM on July 19, 2017 [9 favorites]


We had to read about this for Software Engineering because the fault was the difference between the spec and the implementation and the fact that there was no feedback loop between the architects and the builders.
posted by octothorpe at 10:19 AM on July 19, 2017 [7 favorites]


See also: Sampoong Department Store Collapse, where an entire five-story department store pancaked.

Jesus, this one is a rough read! That Lee Joon guy is an absolute monster.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:22 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


We recently had a two-story building partly collapse at work over a weekend. No one was hurt and the building's been closed and people relocated, but it definitely has me wondering about the structural integrity of the building I work in.

This whole post is very timely for me.
posted by offalark at 10:33 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


At at least two points in TFA, my jaw dropped:

Mine dropped here:
On October 14, 1979 (more than one year before the walkways collapsed), while the hotel was still under construction, more than 2700 square feet of the atrium roof collapsed because one of the roof connections at the north end of the atrium failed.
... specifically, how did that not spur a thorough review of every single connection/fastener/etc design being used in the project? You already have evidence that things either weren't being engineered or constructed properly!

Learned about this from an episode of Seconds from Disaster , which is a show you should know about if you (like me) are fascinated by breaking down how these kinds of things happen.

I'm obsessed with the Engineering Disasters episodes of Modern Marvels. It's almost always a cascade of several errors that causes these events to occur. I too find it fascinating.
posted by misskaz at 10:33 AM on July 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


My favorite engineering professor used this as the culmination of a slide show about failures on the first day of class, and had images from the reporting bodies that were not pleasant.

After the slide show he said heart surgeons hold a human life in their hands, but engineers often hold thousands of human lives in their work, and we should remember that and pay attention in class.

Quite a wake up for a bunch of kids.
posted by dglynn at 10:36 AM on July 19, 2017 [23 favorites]


From the wikipedia article about the Sampoon Department Store collapse (emphasis mine):
The store management failed to shut the building down or issue formal evacuation orders, as the number of customers in the building was unusually high, and it did not want to lose the day's revenue. However, the executives themselves left the premises as a precaution.

Classy, guys.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2017 [18 favorites]


Jesus, this one is a rough read! That Lee Joon guy is an absolute monster.

Yeah I can't believe he only went to jail for 7 years. That was like aggressive and malevolent disregard for people's lives, over the course of multiple years, that resulted in the worst building collapse ever--only to be eclipsed by Sept. 11.

I would have expected an execution.
posted by danny the boy at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2017 [5 favorites]


Just to add some iceing to Lee Joon's classiness cake: he himself evacuated, but didn't even warn his own daughter-in-law, who was working in the store and ended up trapped there for several days. That must have made family relations interesting.
posted by easily confused at 11:06 AM on July 19, 2017 [6 favorites]


My father, a structural engineer, turned me onto engineering failures like this one. I remember talking to him for hours about the Hyatt, and it reminded me that - as dglynn notes above - how many people relied on his advanced math skills.

He also turned me into a fan of Engineering News Record, your bible of the construction industry which (like the original bible) regularly features all kinds of ungodly disasters.
posted by sixpack at 11:32 AM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


Those who've said they're interested in learning about how these sorts of disasters occur might enjoy Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow, an exceptionally good in-depth review of how complex systems go wrong despite efforts to safeguard them.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:46 AM on July 19, 2017 [5 favorites]


Sadly, there was a very similar collapse in 2013 in a Latvian supermarket, where changing single piece structures to two pieces bolted together meant that the joint between the two would have to bear more weight than a single bolt would:
With the two-piece trusses installed, the joint between them would bear most of the roof's weight. She pointed out that there is a video recording of the shopping centre's roof collapsing in which it is obvious that it failed at the exact position of the joints.
posted by ambrosen at 12:43 PM on July 19, 2017


I'd heard about the Hyatt collapse back when it happened, but it was the Versailles Wedding Hall disaster in Israel that really shook me.

What was so disturbing about it wasn't anything graphic, no injuries are seen, but that it was so absolute, in both a physical and metaphorical sense. Someone was filming a wedding dance, showing people happy and dancing, young and old, and then just nothing. They all vanished. They were there and then gone an instant later. It was one of those things that seems so off from what should be that you want to see it again to make sure you saw it correctly the first time. It was uncanny and didn't allow for any mental hedging that maybe I could have avoided the same fate were I there.

Disasters one just hears or reads about are abstractions and one can embellish them with ample time and warning for an aware person opportunity to escape that fate. Actually seeing how quickly and totally dozens of people can disappear without the least warning struck me deeply. I still think about the video, more than even the 9/11 ones, since it was, for me, a signal moment of palpable awareness over the fragility of, well, everything.

(The link is to the wikipedia article on the event. The footage itself is on youtube, but I didn't link to it. The effect the video had on me isn't likely to be shared by most, but it's still better left for those who actively want to search for it rather than anyone hit on it by accident.)
posted by gusottertrout at 12:53 PM on July 19, 2017 [6 favorites]


Just looked at some youtube accounts. So, first the walkways collapse, and they break a water main. While the rescue is underway, the whole place is filling up with bloody water, threatening to drown everyone. Geez, what next? Rafts of fire ants?
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:56 PM on July 19, 2017


I go on these kicks where I read about disasters on Wikipedia, and then feel really lousy about being fascinated.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:58 PM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


I actually hadn't heard of this incident (happened before I was born) until hearing an interview with Kliph Scurlock of the Flaming Lips, who lost his mother in the collapse.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:01 PM on July 19, 2017


Every first year engineering student studies this disaster now as there are so many leasons rolled up into a single avoidable event (IE: this wasn't something failing in a new, unknown or novel way but a very predictable failure). I kind of wish this sort of thing was examined in every high school curriculum as a way of making people aware of consequences of short cuts.
posted by Mitheral at 2:05 PM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


StickyCarpet: "Geez, what next? Rafts of fire ants?"

The water could have overwhelmed the fuel containment system of the diesel backup generators creating a nice layer of liquid fuel over the water.
posted by Mitheral at 2:11 PM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


I remember hearing about the skywalk collapse on the evening news as a child. I found absolutely every newspaper and magazine article I could find about it for years because it was such a scary thing as well as so interesting as a story of failure. I remember very vividly a drawing of a falling woman in a party dress which I'm sure was in Reader's Digest, but is likely a figment of my imagination.
posted by crush at 2:19 PM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


It was the Reader's Digest version of this story that terrified and fascinated me for years.
posted by wintermind at 4:12 PM on July 19, 2017


The Reader's Digest version is a footnote on Wikipedia, but does not appear to be online.
posted by crush at 4:16 PM on July 19, 2017


Just to add some iceing to Lee Joon's classiness cake: he himself evacuated, but didn't even warn his own daughter-in-law, who was working in the store and ended up trapped there for several days. That must have made family relations interesting

I'm pretty sure this is an actual soap opera villain patriarch plot from my youth.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 5:51 PM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


Having grown up in and around the Kansas City area, this is something that still gets talked about regularly. It was a bit unnerving the first time I mentally connected the lobby in question with an actual place, as I was attending a concert being held in the atrium.
posted by jferg at 6:53 PM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


We had to read about this for Software Engineering

I imagine you also had to read about the Therac-25, which is another horrifying example of getting things wrong enough to kill people.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:04 PM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


Yep, another engineer who heard about it in strength of materials class. We were shown the video with the before and after, but continuous sound spliced in from another source. Pretty disturbing. Many of us knew people killed or injured in the Clarkston Toll explosion of 1971, for which no-one was found liable despite a vastly corroded gas main that had leaked.

Years later and thousands of kilometres away, I parked on the rooftop car park of the Algo Mall in Elliot Lake. As I closed the door of the car, the roof gave a sick shudder, far more than it should have from a door slam. Two years later, the bit I had parked on collapsed, killing two people.

Should I have said something? Dunno. I'm very sensitive to seismic vibrations, and I can feel the wub wub of active decking in malls like the Eaton Centre and Clayton/St Louis Galleria.
posted by scruss at 7:54 PM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


There was an article about the Therac-25 included in the reader for my Intro to CS class, but I don't think the instructors ever brought it up. I guess it was a kind of bonus memento mori for those motivated enough to read the reader.

As an engineer, I admit to having a fascination with engineering failures. Lately the Oroville Dam disaster (and repair) has been a prime example of something that didn't have to happen. I just hope I learn enough about things to never contribute to an engineering disaster.
posted by Standard Orange at 1:35 AM on July 20, 2017


I imagine you also had to read about the Therac-25, which is another horrifying example of getting things wrong enough to kill people.

Definitely. I work in the medical software field now so that one is often in my mind.
posted by octothorpe at 3:26 AM on July 20, 2017


I had never heard of this until last summer, when I stayed at this hotel (it's now a Sheraton). I had recently become enamored of the Wikipedia Nearby page and was quite surprised when I idly fired it up while on one of the current walkways above the atrium and came up with the page about the disaster.
posted by yarrow at 4:12 AM on July 20, 2017


I remember reading about this in a great book called "Why Buildings Fall Down." I told a friend of mine who had just graduated as an ME and of course when I described what happened he refused to believe me assuming I guess that since I wasn't an engineer I must have misunderstood.
posted by Pembquist at 6:42 PM on July 22, 2017


I think it was the Reader's Digest version I remember (I was about 10, RD was in the house and much anticipated every month, as I lived in a very northern town and reading was what we did as entertainment). The setting was a survivor's point of view, trapped but alive under some part of the walkway(s). Anyway, the scene that remained with me was this: the narrator was amazed that someone next to them suddenly sat straight up.

Because their face was stuck to the concrete that was being lifted by the rescuers.

I had never even been to a mall at that point in my life. I actually had fears when we moved down south, when friends would propose going to the mall. Luckily we never made it far enough south that skywalks were even a thing.
posted by Tad Naff at 11:44 PM on July 23, 2017


« Older The philosophy behind the throne   |   Equal parts quixotic dreamer and accomplished... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments