40 years ago today one of America’s deadliest structural collapses took place

Firefighters rescue people from under a collapsed walkway in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel in 1981 (Bettman Archive via Getty)

Firefighters rescue people from under a collapsed walkway in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel in 1981 (Bettman Archive via Getty)

As the US mourns the mounting death toll from the Miami condo building collapse, the country this weekend will mark the 40-year anniversary of a similar tragedy.

On 17 July, 1981, two walkways collapsed at the the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri. The concrete and glass platforms, packed with revelers, gave way on to more than 300 people below, leaving 114 dead and more than 200 injured.

Many of the victims were attending a tea dance on the ground floor. Others had been watching from the walkways, which started to sway before failing, according to accounts.

It remains one of the deadliest structural collapses in US history, and is believed to be only second to The Pemberton Mill collapse of 1860, in which 145 people were reportedly killed in Massachusetts when a factory wall came down.

In Kansas City, investigators later found that a design fault in how the walkways had been built was to blame.

“It was unimaginable. You never expect that kind of news, especially when you’re a kid. And to say it was difficult is an understatement,” said Brent Wright, in an interview with NPR this week. His mother, 37-year-old Karen Jeter, was among the fatalities.

“Part of your initial reaction is shock, and it’s almost too horrible to even believe”.

Parallels have been drawn with the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, on 24 June. Officials have so far confirmed the deaths of 97 people, and eight remain missing. Rescuers ceased the search for survivors for last week.

The Champlain Towers were constructed in the same year as the Kansas City tragedy. A ceremony commemorating the walkway collapse will be held at the city’s Skywalk Memorial.

Dr Joseph F Waeckerle, a physician and the former medical director for Kansas City, was one of the first responders on the scene 40 years ago. He said that emergency officials learned lessons on how to communicate during such a disaster.

“For example, initially we used a bullhorn, and that shorted out very quickly when you got doused with the water,” he told NPR this week, “Then it was dark, and so people yelled and screamed. And then we sort of got organised.

“Follow command and control. Follow communications. Never give up hope. And never give up respect for your patients. Eventually you’ll see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”

In Surfside, Florida, files released by officials suggested that the condo building’s owners added a penthouse level at the last minute and appeared to break rules on building height, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

A report by The New York Times also alleged there were fewer steel reinforcements at the base of the Surfside building than in the original design plans from 1978.

The Surfside building’s collapse, which happened on a still summer’s night with little warning, is still being investigated.

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