Friday, July 15, 2011

Painful memories of Hyatt collapse haunt police 30 years later

Sunday, July 17, marks the 30th anniversary of the Kansas City Hyatt skywalks collapse, which killed 114 people and went down as the worst structural disaster in American history. I had been on the police department just two years on that day in 1981 and had been working a special property crimes assignment the week before, so it was my day off. I was spared seeing the carnage of that night, but many of my fellow officers who responded will never, ever forget that day. Our department newsletter, the Informant, published a story in August 2009 when plans for a memorial were announced. I've pasted that below. Long-retired officers - many known as consumate tough guys - broke into tears when they recalled that night. After the newsletter was mailed out to retirees, several called the department, just wanting to talk about their experiences and how the Hyatte collapse haunts them still.

The story below originally was published in August 2009. Some photos taken by police and crime scene technicians at the scene in 1981 are at the bottom. Only a few of our cameras took color pictures at that time. Some of these photos were taken the night of the disaster, and some the day after. You can click on any of them to see a larger version.

It was just after 7 p.m. July 17 when two KCPD cars were dispatched on an ambulance/medical call to the new Hyatt Regency Hotel. Then-Officer Gary Thurman, now a Captain, was only blocks away and one of the first to arrive. He had just finished his rookie year, and nothing could prepare him for what was to transpire over the course of the next few hours.

The Hyatt was hosting a Tea Dance, and the walkways were filled with revelers watching the dance floor below. In an instant, their lives and so many others were changed forever. It was 1981 – before major American terrorist attacks like those in Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, 2001 – and Kansas City was immersed in a disaster at a scale no one could imagine. Even now, 28 years later, the collapse of the three skywalks at the Hyatt Regency still stands as the deadliest structural disaster in American history. Plans were announced on the anniversary of the collapse this year to begin construction on a memorial. Kansas City Parks Director Mark McHenry said the memorial wasn’t just for the victims.

“It’s also about the police, firefighters and EMTs – the first responders and all they did to save lives that night,” McHenry said.

The memorial will honor people like Thurman, who said he grabbed a first aid kit and ran to the hotel lobby. Blood had turned the gushing water from broken pipes to maroon. Overhead were sparking wires. And screams, lots of screams.

“I’ve never felt so inadequate in my life,” Thurman said, “What can I do with a little first aid kit?”

Sergeant Tony Sanders was not yet a KCPD employee. He was a 21-year-old paramedic behind the wheel of the first ambulance to arrive.

“It was like a movie,” Sanders said. “As soon as we pulled up outside, injured, bleeding people were grabbing me, asking for help. Here I am, one guy, and there were so many that needed help.”

Officer Barry Mayer (retired 2002) had been on the department for five years. He arrived with the Central Patrol Division Support Unit. He was frozen for a moment when he saw a leg in a pool of red water. It looked like it could be his mother-in-law who had planned to be there that night. His partner, Officer Joe Kern (who retired in 1999 and is now a firearms instructor at the Police Academy), a wounded Vietnam War veteran, said nothing in ‘Nam was as bad as what he saw that night.

Public Affairs Officer Rick McLaughlin (retired 2004) was on call. The dispatcher requested he respond to handle the media on the scene. She told him there were reports of three dead, perhaps three more in the rubble. When he arrived, the 28th body was being pulled from the debris. The count would reach 114. While dealing with the local and national media arriving on the scene, he was asked to remove a reporter who had snuck into the temporary morgue. When McLaughlin reached the reporter, the reporter was bent over vomiting, sickened by the carnage.

Back at headquarters, Robbery Sergeant Joe McHale (retired 2001) and all the detectives on the second floor grabbed reports, cameras and film and headed for the Hyatt. A temporary morgue was established in a ballroom on the south side. The detectives were tagging the bodies, and a card system was established to identify victims. Families were shown Polaroid photos and then escorted to the morgue for a visual confirmation. It was a grisly task for everyone as the majority of the victims were crushed beyond recognition.

Department members channeled their emotions in different ways. One confided he was sleeping 12 hours a night. At first he thought it was exhaustion but later realized it was to escape the images and memories. Some kept it inside for years, never discussing it with family.

“It is a horrible memory, most likely the worst in your life, but you have a bond with those people and you know they are the only ones that understand what you went through,” said Officer Mike Wilson, (retired 2003) .

Now a memorial will be a tangible outlet for those feelings, but it will never supplant the grisly memories of those first-responders.

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