U.S.A.

Nightmare in Kansas City

JANE O’HARA July 27 1981
U.S.A.

Nightmare in Kansas City

JANE O’HARA July 27 1981

Nightmare in Kansas City

It had all the earmarks of the climactic scene in a Hollywood disaster film. First came the cracking sound that rang through the lobby of Kansas City’s luxury Hyatt Regency Hotel like a rolling clap of thunder. Then, as throngs of unsuspecting hotel patrons—some sipping wine on second-floor balconies, others dancing to the weekly big-band Tea Dance tunes— watched in horror, steel girders crumpled and two cement skybridges spanning the hotel atrium broke from their supports and collapsed in an earsplitting shower of glass, carrying 500 people with them. Next came the true sounds of the tragedy—muffled voices buried under tons of rubble. Women in evening gowns screaming for their husbands, fathers searching for their children. It happened so quickly that few in the five-storey lobby had time to run to safety.

“I knew it was happening,” said one dazed hotel guest. “But something kept telling me that it couldn’t happen, not

really. These things don’t just happen to real people.” Despite the fantastic nature of last week’s disaster, the human toll was all too real. After an allnight rescue effort—which involved more than 1,000 workers—police reported that 111 were dead, more than 180 injured. “The last slab was removed about 7:45 a.m. Saturday,” said police Sgt. Jim Treece. “There were 31 bodies under that last slab.”

The Tea Dance disaster was undoubtedly the worst in Kansas City’s history, but for the American hotel industry it is just another in a string of calamities that have struck in the past year. Last August a' bomb set by an extortionist ripped out the side of a Nevada hotel causing an estimated $3 million in damage. A fire at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand last November killed 84 and injured 700 and another fire at Stouffer’s Inn in White Plains, N.Y., the following month claimed 26 lives.

There is little doubt that the aftermath of the tragedy will consist of countless lawsuits, millions of dollars of reconstruction work on the $50-million

40-storey hotel and massive soulsearching on the parts of architects and engineers as they try to discover the structural infirmity that led to the carnage. One thing is certain: Americans are shaking their heads in disbelief. It is horror enough to watch disasters such as The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure happen on the silver screen. It is even somewhat more removed to watch an Italian earthquake rocking villages from their hillside moorings. For Americans, however, raised on the assumption of their technical ingenuity, the question asked by one survivor is pertinent: “How could this have happened here?”

JANE O’HARA