Kansas City, MO Hyatt Walkway Collapse
Cash's Chicago balcony collapse thread reminded me of the Hyatt balcony collapse in Kansas City.
It was July 17, 1981.
More than 1,500 people were beginning their weekend by attending the weekly Friday evening tea dance at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo.
A tuxedo-clad, 15-piece dance band was playing Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll."
Women in light prints and men in cotton sport coats danced or listened while sipping from cocktail glasses.
Many enjoyed the music in the jam-packed lobby, with toes tapping or hips swaying to the beat.
Others stood and watched from above on the hotel's skywalks -- walkways on the second, third and fourth floors that were made of concrete reinforced with steel beams and suspended artistically by steel girders.
Suddenly, the music and laughter were drowned out by what witnesses described alternately as a "snap," a "roar" or an "explosion."
Within seconds, they were hearing screams as death rained down upon victims of the deadliest accident in the city's history.
The fourth-floor skywalk -- suspended 45 feet above the lobby -- collapsed when steel connections from the walkways to the wall failed.
The skywalk fell onto the second-floor skywalk, directly below and 15 feet above the floor, before both collapsed into the lobby. As they fell they broke third-floor pipes, causing water to gush into the lobby.
That lobby was almost instantly transformed into a tangle of twisted girders and broken glass, marked by spattered blood and the mangled bodies of people torn to pieces or crushed by tons of concrete and steel.
The disaster occurred at 7:11 p.m. and killed 114 people, including almost 50 Kansans. About 200 more were injured.
The tragedy left emotional scars upon those who has witnessed the horrendously bloody, mass death of more than 100 people.
Even today, Topekan Teresa Cuevas hates to think about it.
Mariachi Estrella de Topeka
Cuevas, now 81, suffered serious injuries and lost four close friends in the collapse.
She and her friends were members of Mariachi Estrella de Topeka, a band that played mostly traditional mariachi tunes.
The seven-member group -- which was unique because all its members were women -- was gaining in popularity and had even found itself forced to turn down some engagements.
Six members were to perform at the Hyatt at 8 p.m. on July 17. One, Isabelle Gonzales, had stayed home to care for two young children.
The performers arrived at the 1-year-old hotel at about 7 p.m. They were being led to the room where they were to play and had just stepped onto the second-floor walkway when chunks of concrete and steel rained down upon them and they plunged into the lobby.
The collapse killed band members Connie Alcala, 32; Dolores Carmona, 35; Linda Scurlock, 36; and Dolores Galvan, 26.
Survivors were Cuevas, who suffered crushed vertebrae, a concussion and severe bruising, and Rachel Galvan, who suffered bruises and a broken ankle.
Rachel Galvan, who has since married and taken the last name Sangalang, told The Topeka Capital-Journal the day after the disaster that the collapse had taken her by surprise.
"We went up to the second floor and went around to the side, onto the balcony," she said. "The next thing I knew it was falling from beneath me."
Sangalang was covered by debris and pinned to the floor by a heavy object. She lay trapped for 60 to 90 minutes.
"They pulled a man from beside me who had died," she said. "I was very lucky."
Cuevas told The Capital-Journal later that year that she was "just walking ... and then we all started falling."
Cuevas said she heard screaming and thought she was dreaming. She thought of her family during the roughly 90 minutes she remained trapped beneath the rubble.
"I kept hollering and praying. I was praying aloud in Spanish," she said.
Finally, rescuers came.
"A man grabbed my hand and said, 'Here's a live one,'" Cuevas said. "I wouldn't let go of his hand. I wouldn't let go."
"If our timing had been just a little different"
The Rev. Ken and Jeanette Grenz saw the skywalks collapse from their table at a restaurant in the hotel. But if Jeanette Grenz had gotten her way, she said, they may have been beneath the skywalks.
The Grenzes had recently moved to the Kansas City area, where Ken Grenz was associate pastor for a United Methodist Church in Overland Park. The couple previously lived in South Dakota, where they had taken ballroom dancing classes.
"I saw the tea dances at the Hyatt advertised and thought it looked like fun, so we went," Ken Grenz said.
The tea dances were a Friday night fixture at the 40-story hotel, which was the city's newest and one of its most luxurious. The Grenzes arrived at about 5:30 p.m. and listened to the music but didn't dance.
"The mood was upbeat, Friday night and workweek cares were put aside," Ken Grenz recalled. "The band played in one corner and a line formed under the skywalks for featured strawberry daiquiries."
The couple went up on the skywalks and watched the dancers from above.
"It was a nice view of the dance floor," Jeanette Grenz said.
Ken Grenz and his wife debated whether to get in the drink line under the skywalks or go eat at the Terrace Cafe.
"I won out so we headed up, were seated and ordered," he said. "Our table overlooked the lobby."
Jeanette Grenz said the choice left her "a bit annoyed because I really wanted to dance."
Ken Grenz ordered Shanghai chicken and sat facing the skywalks, with his wife facing him.
"The band was playing 'Satin Doll' when suddenly I saw the skywalks come crashing down on the lobby floor, smashing the festivity beneath clouds of dust sprayed by water spurting from torn pipes where the walks had been ripped from their sockets," he said in written comments.
"After a moment of what felt like silence, cries and chaos began to erupt from the lobby."
Jeanette Grenz doesn't remember whether it was the look on her husband's face or the noise from behind that caused her to turn around.
"But when I looked, the skywalks were breaking in half and falling down and people were trying to hold on but were falling off," she said. "Next thing I remember is steam of some kind pouring from the wall where the skywalks had broken away.
"I don't remember hearing any screams, but my mind must have blocked them out because Ken says he heard lots of screams and moans."
The Grenzes went to their car and left.
Jeanette Grenz closely followed subsequent newspaper and TV coverage of the collapse, and has kept the newspapers.
"I seemed to have a need to know all the stories of the people who died and the people who were trapped for hours but survived," she said. "If our timing had been just a little different, it would have been us who were on or under the skywalks."
Later, the Grenzes each received a check for $1,000 after signing a form promising not to pursue legal action against anyone involved.
"We had to prove that we were there," Jeanette Grenz said. "They interviewed Ken and me separately to see if our stories matched. I also had kept the parking ticket from the Hyatt parking lot from that night since I hadn't needed to turn it in."
She said the woman who interviewed the couple told them many more people had claimed to be at the Hyatt that night than could have possibly been there, so she appreciated hearing a truthful story from people who were there.
Nearly 2,000 survivors and relatives of those who died in the Hyatt collapse filed claims that resulted in the payment of more than $120 million in settlements.
Ultimate responsibility for the collapse was fixed on two structural engineers who designed the faulty skywalks.
The Hyatt's third-floor skywalk, which was not in line with the others, did not collapse but was taken down soon afterward. The hotel reopened in October 1981 with one skywalk, a wider, second-story span.
Sangalang, who plays for a Topeka band, Mariachi Habanero, returned to the Hyatt a couple of years ago. She said the experience was thought-provoking but not as traumatic as she expected it to be.
Cuevas continues to play with Mariachi Estrella. She says her love of music motivated her to reform the band. She prefers not to talk about her experience at the Hyatt.
"I never would want to go back," she said.
The Grenzes later lived in Topeka and Holton, and now reside at Spring Hill in Miami County.
Jeanette Grenz said thoughts about the Hyatt collapse resurface whenever she sees news coverage of such events as the Oklahoma City bombing or the collapse of a dance floor that killed more than 100 people this year in Israel.
Ken Grenz said he doesn't often think about "that seemingly perfectly wonderful night suddenly turned so horrible. Sometimes it seems that the effect is all but gone."
Then, Grenz said, he saw video of the wedding dance collapse. "As the floors collapse on the television screen and the revelers' laughter turns to shrieks, I realize once more that even after two decades, a vestige of that night can still be suddenly re-ignited in my heart."
News video of the aftermath:
Photos of the 'failed components':