40 years before Surfside, a collapse in Kansas City killed 114 people. Here's what we've learned from that disaster
Updated 5:06 AM ET, Sat July 17, 2021
(CNN)On a balmy Missouri evening in 1981, this was one of the hottest places to be.
More than 1,500 revelers had gathered on the first floor of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency for a popular tea dance party hosted by the swanky 1-year-old hotel.
As musicians performed big band hits, couples swing-danced under long, novel skywalks spanning the second and fourth floors that seemed to float in the sky, historians have recalled.
Then, as the orchestra was said to be playing Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," the fourth-floor skywalk collapsed onto the second-floor skywalk directly beneath it. Both walkways then crashed onto the ground floor, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200 others.
The catastrophe on July 17, 1981, is one of the deadliest structural collapses in US history. That same year, the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Florida, was completed -- only to meet a similar, disastrous fate this June, when it partially collapsed killing at least 97 people.
Forty years after the Kansas City disaster, the memories are still vivid. And the lessons learned from it are as relevant as ever -- not just for engineers and architects but for everyone, several people close to the tragedy told CNN.
Here's what they want Americans to remember:
Don't rush to judgment, and don't ignore the details
Bill Quatman was a 23-year-old architect just starting his career in Kansas City. He wasn't involved in the design of the skywalks, but he marveled at the way they seemed to float in the air -- an unusual sight at the time, he said.
He and his wife had dined at the hotel a week before the collapse and had noticed another spectacle:
"A few thousand people were enjoying themselves at a tea dance, listening to big band music from an orchestra, dancing and laughing to tunes of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington," Quatman said.
"We saw this tea dance going on (and thought), 'That looks like fun; we should come back sometime.'"
But on the evening of July 17, they had other plans. That night -- after the skywalks fell -- a friend told Quatman about the tragedy but mistakenly said the hotel's roof had fallen in.
"The first 48 hours, nobody really knew the cause, but there was speculation -- just like there is today with the Surfside condos," Quatman said. "All sorts of theories floating around, and nobody knows ... I think one of the similarities is the rush to judgment."
The cause of the Surfside collapse is still under investigation.
One popular myth following the Kansas City disaster was that the song playing at the time of the collapse -- Ellington's "Satin Doll" -- somehow contributed to the skywalks falling, he said.
The theory was "harmonic vibrations from the band music caused the steel to oscillate," Quatman said. But experts and courts later determined there were fatal engineering design errors.
The original design had called for the second-floor and fourth-floor skywalks to both be supported with a set of steel hanger rods connected to the ceiling. But a design change was made over the phone between the steel fabricator and the structural engineer, Quatman said.
"They hung the second-floor bridge from the fourth-floor bridge and doubled the load on that connection, which was ultimately a fatal design change," he said.
The resulting design was "capable of withstanding only an estimated 30 percent of the mandated minimum," according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. A series of miscommunications and failures to double-check calculations and plans led to the collapse.
In the decades since, Quatman has spent much of his career as both an architect and lawyer speaking to engineering and architecture students to help prevent such catastrophic mistakes in the future.
"I always end my talks by saying you cannot ignore the small details," Quatman said. "The (connection) that failed was about 8 inches wide."
Don't take the 'simple things' for granted
Brent Wright was just 17 years old when he lost his mother and stepfather. Since then, every anniversary of the collapse has been challenging.
"Even though it's been 40 years, those memories come flooding back," said Wright, now 57. "It's emotional. All these years later, I still miss my mother and stepfather."
Karen and Gene Jeter had gotten married just 16 days before the skywalks collapsed. The newlyweds spent their final moments doing what Karen loved -- dancing.
It was a skill she insisted her son learn -- for the sake of his future dating life.
"When I was growing up, my mom said, 'Look, you need to learn how to dance. All the girls will love it if you actually know how to dance.' So she taught me how to dance," Wright said.
Footage of the Hyatt Regency's dance party showed his mother and stepfather having a glorious time, Wright said. The event was so popular, his father and future stepmother were also there.
But Wright didn't know that -- or about the tragedy that would change his life -- until the following day. On the night of the collapse, he was working the loading dock at a Macy's store to earn money for college.
"I had the radio turned on on the dock and heard something come over the radio about some accident. It wasn't clear what the details were," Wright recalled.
"I called my mom because I was going to ask her about it. Nobody answered."
Wright, who lived with his father at the time, came home that night and went right back to work early the next morning. Then his dad called him and told him to come home immediately.
"My dad just looked at us and said, 'I don't know any way to tell you this, but your mom and Gene were killed at the Hyatt collapse,'" Wright said. "It was absolutely awful."