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The Kansas City Hyatt Disaster: 30 Years Later,
a Reminder to Never Forget

By Matt Campbell, The Kansas City Star, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 17, 2011--Thirty years ago today the music stopped when the skywalks in the elegant Hyatt Regency hotel lobby suddenly crashed down on a crowd of people enjoying big-band tunes and a night out.

The 114 people killed in the disaster will never age. The injured, the victims' loved ones and the rescuers, however, are three decades older.

Over that long a span, anger and grief can recede, but they can also harden into a resolve to make sure that the calamity is never forgotten.

A small group has been making real progress toward creating a permanent memorial to the dead, the injured and the rescue workers. Today, on the 30th anniversary, they will reveal a sculpture design for a Skywalk Memorial and announce they are closer than ever to making it a reality.

"I become frustrated because I feel this has gone on way too long," said Frank Freeman, who five years ago picketed in the broiling sun outside the Hyatt hotel for a memorial. Today he is less outwardly angry, more confident of success.

"Everything happens for a purpose," said Freeman, who lost his partner at the Hyatt and was himself injured. "Now (I see) these past five years everything happened at the right time and we got the right people involved."

The group has:

-- Established a nonprofit Skywalk Memorial Foundation that has raised about $350,000 of the $800,000 it needs for a memorial and an endowment. The fund is managed by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

-- Obtained the blessings of both the Hyatt and the property owner, Hallmark Cards Inc.

-- Secured a choice spot just across the street -- and visible from -- the Hyatt in Hospital Hill Park, 22nd Street and Gillham Road.

Memorial proponents will mark that progress and break ground in a "Celebration of Life and Spirit" at 12:30 p.m. today at the park. They are optimistic that by the 31st anniversary they will be able to gather at the completed memorial.

Foundation board member Brent Wright, who lost his mother and stepfather at the Hyatt, said the disaster was a historic event for Kansas City and had a ripple effect beyond the community. A memorial is important, he said, because it would be the first collective, public recognition of what happened.

He acknowledges it has been a long road.

"I don't know that any of us knew exactly what to expect when we embarked on this project," Wright said. "For better or for worse, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to get across the finish line."

Here are some of the people whose lives have been touched by the disaster and who are working for a memorial.

***

Memorial board member John Sullivan was 24 years old and looking to start law school at the University of Kansas in the fall of 1981. That summer he was staying at his parents' home in Blue Springs. Bob and Katy Sullivan rarely went out for a night on the town, so John thought it unusual to find the house quiet that Friday night.

A TV news report about the Hyatt was on when the phone rang. It was his dad's best friend.

Johnny, are your folks there?

No, Chuck, I don't know where they are.

Johnny, I think they may have gone down to the Hyatt.

John and his younger brother, Danny, jumped into John's car and they flew downtown.

"We saw them carrying what we believed to be my father away in a stretcher, and he looked to be alive and my first reaction was, 'Wow, looks like he's OK,' " John Sullivan recalled. "And immediately we looked at each other. Where's Mom? They would never have separated voluntarily."

John and his brother waited until dawn in a holding area for news about their mother. Then their parents' friend Chuck, who was with them, said he had to go get his insulin.

"What he really was doing was going over to the morgue," John Sullivan said. "He identified her. He came back and told me."

Bob Sullivan never wanted to celebrate holidays after that, without his wife. He died in 2000.

John Sullivan moved to Dallas to practice law, in part because he could not bear to stay in Kansas City and see the Hyatt in the skyline every day. His daughter, now 7, was born on her grandmother's birthday and named Kathryn Anne Sullivan after her.

John Sullivan still has his mom's purse, still full of glass.

***

The skywalk story is forever part of the Kansas City story.

The year-old Hyatt Regency hotel at 2345 McGee St. held popular "tea dance" parties on Friday evenings, with the sun setting in the west windows of the lobby atrium. Just inside those windows, at the second and fourth-floor levels, two suspended walkways 120 feet long added to the ambience of the party below with live, big-band music.

Couples and singles danced or just enjoyed watching. An estimated 56 people looked down from the lower skywalk, and another seven or so were on the one above. A larger crowd was on the floor.

The party was in its third and final hour, at 7:05 p.m., when the bolts holding up the skywalks began to pop. In seconds more than 70 tons of concrete and steel came down.

Aside from the dead, more than 200 people were injured. Emergency workers toiled all night to save lives and retrieve the dead. The emergency was declared over at 7:52 a.m., but the aftermath had just begun.

GCE International Inc. was the design firm. Plans had both walkways hanging from the same vertical support rods. But a revision had the lower skywalk hanging from the upper one on separate rods.

That increased the load on the upper skywalk and added to the stress on the bolts, which were doomed to pull free of the welded box beams to which the rods were attached. The flaw was obvious in hindsight.

There were no criminal charges, but the engineers lost their licenses. There were about $140 million in judgments and settlements.

***

The first policeman on the scene was Vince Ortega, who is now a member of the board of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation.

He was in his squad car near Linwood Boulevard and Main Street when a dispatcher sent him to check a report of a woman falling down an escalator at the Hyatt. Did it require an ambulance?

By the time he got to Grand Boulevard, the reports of injuries were multiplying rapidly. Ortega reached the Hyatt and entered the lobby on the north side.

"It was chaotic," he recalled. "People were screaming, crying, grabbing me, saying we need help over here, pulling me in different directions."

A broken water pipe threatened to drown those trapped. Electrical wires were sparking. People were crushed beyond recognition.

The hours went by as Ortega and dozens of other emergency responders -- firemen, emergency medical technicians, citizens -- carried bodies either to a temporary morgue or a makeshift emergency room. A man's leg was amputated by chainsaw in order to free him. Ortega saw a police officer try to pull a screaming man out and his arm came off.

By 1 a.m. Ortega realized that, as the first officer, it was his job to write the report. What would he call it? Homicide? Injury accident? It was filed as a "casualty" report with numerous supplements.

Responders seemed to work on auto-pilot. The screams and groans subsided, and the sound was of concrete saws and rubble removal, like a construction site.

The thing that stayed with Ortega was a distinctive smell of alcohol, blood and death. It was with him for a month. He used Vicks to try to mask it even though he knew it was only in his mind. Ortega knows of other responders who later changed professions.

"Most everybody did things far beyond anything they ever thought they were capable of doing," Ortega said.

***

Nobody with the power to say "No" to the idea of a skywalk memorial ever did. But for the first 25 years no one exerted enough energy to make it happen.

Several people over the years raised the question of why there was no memorial, but they were voices in the wind. Around the time of the 25th anniversary, Frank Freeman, John Sullivan and Brent Wright teamed up and their efforts began to have weight.

They first created a website that soon revealed a base of support for a memorial.

Many people had assumed that Hallmark Cards Inc., owner of Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. and the Hyatt property, would never allow a permanent reminder of the disaster.

Crown Center management had been hesitant, saying it was sensitive to the feelings of people for whom a memorial would be painful. But the Hallmark Corporate Foundation in 2008 contributed $25,000 to help get the memorial project started and this year pledged another $25,000.

"We were happy to provide it," said Steve Doyal, senior vice president for public affairs and communication for Hallmark Cards.

The Hyatt management had also been concerned about the sensitivity of the memorial issue but in 2008 issued a statement supporting the project.

Former Kansas City Mayor Richard Berkley, who spent the entire night of the disaster at the scene, also became a public advocate and is now honorary chairman of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation. The city of Kansas City contributed $75,000 in sales-tax revenue for the project.

Freeman, Sullivan and Wright first approached the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners about placing the memorial in Washington Square Park, across Pershing Road from Crown Center. But that park had already been approved as the site of a Korean War memorial.

Children's Mercy Hospital, however, was planning improvements to Hospital Hill Park. The hospital, the park department and the memorial foundation worked together to set aside an area of that park for the skywalk project.

***

Kathleen and Harry Wilber did not intend to go to the Hyatt that night but were at a business dinner at a Crown Center condo when the hosts suggested they pop over to the tea dance. The Leawood couple was on the lower skywalk.

Kathleen was labeled fatality No. 27 and would not be identified until much later. Harry, who was wounded in the rubble, told of having an out-of-body experience.

"He was brought out and put in the place where those that are deceased were placed," said Karla Woodward, relating what her father told her. "He was given a number and he remembers looking down on himself and he said, 'No, I am not going to go now.' "

Harry Wilber told his daughter he alerted two "good Samaritans" that he wasn't dead by willing himself to move his left arm, his most severe injury.

"These two awesome men picked him up and carried him up to Children's Mercy Hospital where he was successfully resuscitated," said Woodward, who soon arrived.

After emergency surgery Harry Wilber was transferred to St. Mary's Hospital. Woodward, then a registered nurse, rode in the ambulance with him.

"Everyone was so kind and compassionate," Woodward said. "Yes, there was horror that night, but the great blessing was being surrounded by the love and care of strangers. And someone lovingly cared for my mother in whatever way they could. Someone got her to the morgue."

Harry Wilber now lives in Oregon, and Woodward is a pastor at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood who works with people who are frail, some at the end of life. Woodward credits the compassion she experienced that night with helping her decide to enter the ministry.

"The message that I would want to send that's most important is the kindness of strangers," Woodward said. "They will never know how they changed lives."

Woodward will give the invocation at today's anniversary observance.

***

The sculpture for the Skywalk Memorial obviously depicts a couple in a dancing embrace. Or does it?

To John Sullivan, the memorial board member who lost his mother in the disaster, it evokes a broken heart. But he still finds comfort in it.

The abstract design will stir different feelings in different people. The artist wants it to be a place for reflection and solace for everyone.

"I hope it gives them positive feelings, uplifting feelings," said Rita Blitt, a Kansas City native whose art is displayed around the world.

The memorial foundation was drawn to Blitt, in part, because her work is inspired by music and dance. Then organizers learned that the person who most inspired Blitt to become an artist, fifth-grade teacher Ruth Ann Angstead, had herself been injured in the skywalk collapse. Blitt refused to accept payment for her design.

The stainless steel sculpture atop a pedestal will reach about 23 feet high. Some kind of kinetic, or moving, element to catch the breeze and light is still under review. A scroll around the pedestal will list the names of the people killed in the disaster.

The art will stand in a plaza with limestone walls and seating surrounded by native grasses. The pavement will be embedded with concentric rings of fiber-optic lights to represent the rippling effects of the disaster. The setting was designed by Bowman Bowman Novick Inc. of Kansas City.

The Municipal Art Commission last week endorsed the concept, which had already been approved by the parks board.

***

Lloyd Henson, who lost his dad at the Hyatt, thinks a memorial is long overdue and plans to help raise money for it.

His father, Tom Henson, lived a life of order and routine even if his death was chaotic. His son remembers him as a man who came home from work at the same time every day to cook for the five kids in his custody after a divorce.

During dinner there was big-band music on the record player with the TV news on low. Friday nights often meant slide shows of the kids with a carousel projector and screen in their Independence home.

Henson was a freight traffic analyst for Farmland Industries and wore a suit every day. He kept his wallet and other necessities in a box and always left the house with the same amount of change in his pocket.

He would buy a new car every couple of years from Cable-Dahmer Chevrolet and always pre-ordered exactly what he wanted: a stick shift on the steering column and no air conditioning. The man never seemed to sweat.

He ordered just about everything else, even the kids' underwear, from the Sears Roebuck catalog.

In the late 1970s Henson married again. Romelia "Romey" Henson was 17 years his junior. They had a son, Josh, who was 2 years old and staying with baby sitters the night his parents went to the Hyatt to enjoy the music.

It's not clear where in the lobby they were when the skywalks fell, but he apparently died quickly, while she may have bled to death. Three years later the family won a wrongful-death suit before a jury and received a check from the insurance company for $3 million.

Lloyd Henson still has his dad's suits but wishes he had not sold his now-retro ties.

***

Among those attending today's observance will be Peggy Olson of Minnesota, who has contributed every year to the skywalk memorial fund since it was created.

She wants there to be a place -- other than a cemetery -- where she can remember her father, Gerald Coffey, and sister, Pam Coffey. Both died that night at the Hyatt. Pam, 11, was the youngest fatality.

"You go to the cemetery and you kind of just stand there for a few minutes," said Olson. "It's not like you can sit somewhere. You don't know what to do. You put a flower down and you leave. It feels very incomplete to me."

A public memorial would put her family members' deaths in context with others who died or were injured. It would serve the same purpose as the one for the Oklahoma City bombing victims or the one for the Kansas City firefighters who died in an explosion seven years after the skywalk collapse, she said.

"The big thing is to honor them and to say their lives weren't in vain," Olson said. "That they're remembered."

Olson said the skywalk disaster added to the destruction of her family, then living in Leavenworth.

Her parents had just been through an acrimonious divorce. Her father, a retired military man living in Leavenworth, decided to spend some quality time with his youngest daughter by taking her to the Hyatt for the tea dance.

Pam remained alive for some time trapped beneath the wreckage near a man who was severely injured but survived. Olson and another sister later met with the man.

"He expressed how brave she was," Olson said. "It was very comforting for us to know there was somebody there that she was talking to and that they prayed together and he was trying to comfort her as best he could."

Olson is hopeful that by the next anniversary the memorial will be built.

"I just feel very passionately that it needs to be done," she said.

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-7745 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com. -- The Star

-----

To see more of The Kansas City Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kansascity.com.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com. NASDAQ:WGOV,


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