sunday, the fifteenth of july, two thousand one
friday, the seventeenth of july, nineteen hundred eighty-one
The sidebar is on indefinite hiatus. I'm going to try life without
it for a while.
This Tuesday will mark the 20th anniversary of what is arguably the
most horrific tragedy that this city as a whole has ever experienced.
On July 17, 1981, the year-old Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Kansas City was hosting its popular Friday night tea-dance competition in the impressively modern, spacious lobby. More than 1500 people milled about, many of them walking across the skywalks traversing the dance floor in the center of the lobby, appreciating a view of the festivities from several stories up.
At approximately 7:05 p.m., the bolts anchoring the fourth-story skywalk to the center support beam snapped. The skywalk split in two and fell directly onto the second-story skywalk, which collapsed entirely. Sixty-five tons of concrete, metal, and glass crashed to the floor of the crowded lobby.
111 people died that night, including 18 married couples competing in the dance. Three of the more than 200 injured died several weeks later, finalizing the death toll at 114.
It is the worst structural failure disaster in the nation's history.
My father was there.
I don't remember exactly why I thought about it recently. Perhaps someone asked me about it, or I might have heard a mention on the news of the approaching anniversary. But for whatever reason, it had been on my mind, and when I went out to breakfast with my mother a couple of weeks ago, I asked her to tell me the story.
The summers of my childhood tend to run together. I spent every summer of my life until the age of 16 on Hilton Head Island, and the only way I can separate them is by my memory of where we stayed. My earliest memory is of a two-bedroom condo; once my brother and I were old enough to need our own rooms, we moved to a three-bedroom; and when I was around 11 or 12, we bought a house.
My father was only in Hilton Head sporadically. He would drive us down, usually spend a few days getting us settled in, then fly back to Kansas City and work. He'd come for the odd weekend, and usually two or three full weeks at some point, but for the most part, it was me, my mother, and my brother, supplemented by various relatives for various lengths of time.
So I have very few specific memories of the summer I was nine. We were in the three-bedroom by then, and there may have been grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins around, I have no idea.
I only remember two things about that particular night, July 17. The first is that we went out to dinner. The second is that I stayed up past my bedtime and saw my father interviewed on Nightline.
I asked my mother to fill in the holes. I was most curious about how she found out -- that is, if there was any period of time where she didn't know whether my father was alive. I felt like I would have remembered that, somehow. She probably would not have told us specifically, but kids sense things, and I would have sensed something like that. She knew he was going to be at the Hyatt that night; at the time, he was the general manager of the ABC affiliate here, and they were one of the sponsors of the dance, so someone had asked him to be a judge.
As it turns out, she didn't know anything about it until she received a phone call from my father, less than an hour after it happened. For whatever serendipitous reason, we hadn't turned on the television when we got home, because by that time, the networks had interrupted their programming to cover it.
My mother said she had never heard my father sound so strange, before or since. She could hear all the confusion in the background, but he wasn't crying, or shouting. In contrast, his voice was subdued, disconnected.
"Gail, people are dead," he told her. "There are bodies everywhere. I don't know what to do. I should help, I have to help, but I don't know how."
"Just ask someone," my mother responded, simply, comfortingly, trying to match his calm, quiet tone, although she still had no real sense of what had happened. "Just find someone who's already helping, and ask."
I have never been through anything remotely close to this in my life, but I understand that there is no way a person can think rationally in the midst of it, at least not at first. My father was wearing a new jacket that night, and he later told my mother that as soon as the initial shock wore off and he understood exactly what had happened, all he could think about was getting the jacket off and putting it somewhere safe, where he wouldn't get blood on it.
I don't know how long my father stayed at the hotel that night. I can't imagine what it must have been like for him to have to go home to an empty house; I'm sure all he wanted to do was be with his family, and it was only a couple of days before he arrived in Hilton Head, but those couple of days must have been torture for him.
He didn't set foot in the Hyatt again until 1997. All four of us came into Kansas City to visit friends over Thanksgiving, and because my brother worked at the Hyatt on Hilton Head, he could get us discounts on rooms there.
Obviously, by this time, it had been completely redesigned, but I don't think that mattered much. Enough of it was the same -- especially the expansive lobby with its high ceilings -- that my father could only bear to stand there long enough to check in. After that, we came and went through the garage.
Oddly enough, I hadn't planned on telling this story here. I didn't make a conscious decision not to tell it -- it's just been a busy summer, and it honestly hadn't occurred to me. But I was standing in line at the grocery store this morning, and the Sunday paper's front-page story was a retrospective on the disaster. While listening to my mother's recollections, my eyes welled a couple of times; but this morning, reading the first-hand accounts of the last victim recovered alive, the commander of the rescue operation, and one of the doctors called to the scene, the tears flowed freely.
All I could think about was how I will never, ever be able to understand what my father must have gone through that night. How there are 1500 families throughout this country with the same sad touchstone in their lives, and at least 114 of them with stories worse than mine.
And suddenly, I wanted to write mine down. In honor of those 114 people. In honor of those who lost their parents, children, teachers, neighbors, and friends. In honor of the residents of this city who, by 3:00 a.m. on July 18, had created a line at the Community Blood Bank three blocks long. In honor of the doctor who had to oversee the amputation by chainsaw of a man's legs in order to free him. In honor of the man in charge of the rescue operation who, as a result, helped develop one of the first programs created to treat the psychological scars of rescue workers. In honor of the last surviving victim who struggled for two years before he could walk again.
In honor of my father, and all the others like him, who went to a party that night, and came home with hearts that would never be the same.
In unending gratitude that he came home at all.