Three Decades On, A Memorial For The Victims Of The Hyatt Disaster

Nov 12, 2015

The Skywalk Memorial Plaza, at 22nd Street and Gillham Road, was designed to honor and remember those who died in the collapse of the Hyatt skywalks in 1981.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

On July 17, 1981, about 2,000 people gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, for a dance. What followed was one of the most deadly structural failures in American history.

Shortly after 7 p.m., two 32-ton skywalks collapsed — the fourth-story walkway fell on to the second-story walkway and both crashed into the lobby. The toll: 114 killed, 200 injured. 

Now, more than 30 years later, a memorial honors those who died and recognizes the contributions of the first responders. At a dedication ceremony Thursday morning for the Skywalk Memorial Plaza, many personal stories were shared.

Vince Ortega, retired deputy chief of the Kansas City Missouri Police Department, was the first officer at the Hyatt because the hotel was in his patrol area. 

"When I arrived at the scene there was nothing in the academy training that could have prepared me or any other first responder for what we witnessed," he told the crowd that filled the memorial's plaza area.  

But Ortega says that's changed: "I want everybody to know that the individuals who lost their lives that evening did not die in vain. As a result of this tragic event, it forever changed the way that first responders handle disasters, whether they're manmade or natural."

The disaster is also used as a cautionary tale — and test case — for engineering students

In the memorial plaza, Rita Blitt's sculpture, 'Sending Love,' includes a base with the names of the 114 victims etched on it.

Brent Wright is chairman and president of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, a group that’s spent about a decade fundraising for a memorial. Wright’s mother and stepfather died in the Hyatt disaster.

"Because those events have touched all of us in one way or another, we are members of a club that none of us wished to join," Wright said. "These are the ties that bind us together forever." 

As part of the dedication ceremony, the names of the 114 victims were read aloud by family members. Frank Freeman introduced each one with their occupation or a short profile. The night of the dance, he was at the Hyatt with his partner, Roger Grigsby, who did not survive. Freeman has been lobbying for a memorial for decades. 

"This has finally come to fruition and it warms the depths of my heart," Freeman said. "This has been my dream for 34 years and I am overcome with joy and pride."

The Skywalk Memorial Plaza, with landscaping and seating, is built on a hillside at 22nd and Gillham Road. At the center, an abstract metallic sculpture by artist Rita Blitt, "Sending Love," resembles two people dancing. The pedestal of the work includes all the names of the 114 people killed when the skywalks fell. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.