On the evening of July 17, 1981, I was in the Kansas City Star newsroom when word came in that a skywalk (later clarified to two skywalks) had collapsed in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Crown Center.
I spent the next several hours taking phone calls from reporters at the scene and fashioning what they gave me into one of at least two front-page stories we had on the disaster the next morning.
Even though I was just four blocks north of the scene of the chaos, I could just as well have been a thousand miles away. I felt completely disconnected. But I had been assigned to a very important job — the editors had enough confidence in me to pull a multifaceted story together — and so I did the best I could.
Looking back, however, I wish that on that night I hadn’t been a reporter but, instead, a citizen who happened to be there and who was fortunate enough to survive. I would like to have been a part of what Councilwoman Jan Marcason described at a memorial service today as “a defining moment in our city.”
If you’re a Kansas Citian, it is impossible to forget that day. One hundred fourteen people killed and more than 200 injured. A simple tea dance. How could it turn into a nightmare? How could a major element of a nearly brand new hotel lobby come crashing down, crushing people gathered underneath?
Everyone — young and old — should carry the memory of the Hyatt Regency skywalks collapse in their hearts for the rest of their lives. It is a powerful connecting point among us, and succeeding generations need to carry the link and the memory forward.
Toward that end, about 150 people gathered this afternoon under a tent at 22nd and Gillham — all intent on remembering and seeing a lasting memorial built across the street, just east of the deadly scene.
Speaker after speaker, including Marcason, went to the microphone to talk about the importance of a lasting memorial.
John Sullivan, a board member of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, said, “If we don’t do this now, I can assure you nobody else will do it. This is our job…It’s our moral responsibility to finish this.”
Sullivan’s mother died in the collapse, and he said that when his daughter — his mother’s namesake — was born seven years ago, he determined that a permanent memorial was needed.
The memorial foundation is now well on its way toward reaching its goal: It has a site (the north end of Hospital Hill Park, across from the Hyatt); a detailed plan and design; and $350,000 of the approximately $800,000 it will take to build and maintain the memorial.
The movement for a memorial began five years ago when Frank Freeman, who was himself injured and lost his partner in the collapse, stood outside the Hyatt on the 25th anniversary of the disaster and brandished a sign calling for a memorial.
Now president, founder and director of the memorial foundation, he is convinced that success is well within reach. And next year, on the 31st anniversary of the collapse, he intends to see the completed memorial dedicated.
I, too, am confident it’s going to happen.
Rising to the challenge, The Kansas City Star is perhaps the most galvanizing and influential force behind the movement. This morning’s editorial page featured an editorial headlined “Time is now for tribute.”
“…the disaster…left deep scars in this metropolitan area,” the editorial said. “We have a responsibility 30 years later to mount a sincere effort to pay tribute to all those affected by it.”
Even more impressive was a compelling, beautifully crafted front-page story by general assignment reporter Matt Campbell, who artfully interspersed people’s memories and experiences from that night with the story of the push for the memorial.
Accompanying the story was a clear and dramatic, two-panel illustration showing exactly what happened that night. That was the work of Dave Eames, head of The Star’s art department. As a rule, I don’t normally push the paper’s financial interests, but in this case, I urge all of you — if you don’t get the paper — to go out and buy one so you can see this story in its full context. The web doesn’t do it justice. This is one of those days when you need the printed product in your hands.
As a result of today’s story and editorial — and in concert with the powerful tribute at Hospital Hill Park — I believe that money will start pouring in for the memorial. I think Freeman and his Skywalk Memorial Foundation will have the needed $400,000 within weeks. Even executives with the Hyatt corporation, I believe, will come to their senses donate to the memorial.
And next year on July 17, we’ll cry for joy as well as in pain.
Editor’s Note: Kevin Murphy, a former Star reporter, said that a good way people can contribute toward the memorial is by purchasing a new book about the Hyatt disaster, “The Last Dance: The Skywalks Disaster and a City Changed.” Murphy was the book’s chief writer.
The book, published by The Star’s book division, sells for $29.95. Doug Weaver, head of the book division, said that all royalties — the part that normally would go to the author — will go to the memorial foundation. The book is available at The Kansas City Store at Union Station and online at thekansascitystore.com. Also, it should be in local book stores soon.