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From Hyatt to Rubble - Part III

Updated on September 21, 2017
DanDnAZ profile image

Registered Architect, 40 years experience, investigative forensic specialist, engineering trained, college teacher, NCARB mentor, MBA.

Human Expression

The human expression as a result of this event is a study of diversity by itself, with so many people affected by the skywalks’ collapse. First, the Mayor of Kansas City, Richard Berkley asked the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) “to determine the most probable cause of the walkways’ collapse”, being supported by Senator Thomas Eagleton, Senator John Danforth, and Congressman Richard Bolling, in calling for such an independent investigation (NBS, p. v). The NBS investigation was requested because these leaders feared that this was the only way to get a reliable unbiased probable cause determination. This expression alone is indicative of distrust by these leaders over a closed investigation process, fearing that the parties would be more concerned for their own interest and/or liability and would fail in answering the public’s demand for information. This expression seemed almost upheld as the owners of the Hyatt Regency, concerned about its own litigation issues, had to be compelled by the courts to allow this outside investigation (National Geographic, time mark 23:56). By the time the NBS investigators arrived in Kansas City, the debris had already been moved to a private warehouse and required the support of the Jackson County Court to provide the NBS access to the debris to begin its analysis (National Geographic, time mark 24:44).

The Kansas City Star, a local newspaper, knowing that it would take months for the NBS to issue a report, and not willing to wait; hire a local Structural Engineer, Wayne Lischka (National Geographic, time mark 19:57), to be an undercover reporter to make his determination of the cause of the failure. Three days after the collapse, when the Hyatt owner allowed the press in to the atrium for the first time, Lischka was there. With him was a photographer with a telephoto lens. Lischka was one of the first to discover the change of the rod design. As a result, the Star won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the collapse (National Geographic, time mark 44:00).

This event even changed the way the City of Kansas City issued building permits. The City changed its building regulations, requiring all load bearing calculations to be reviewed by a City appointed City Engineer (National Geographic, time mark 45:07). This was a behavior that spread across the Country as well. Today, it is almost impossible to get a building permit anywhere without having a structural review, and most likely a Registered Professional designer.

Another major change in human behavior came, as a result of the skywalks’ collapse, was the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) changed their own rules, making it clear to the Engineer that you are responsible for the plans you seal (National Geographic, time mark 45:19). This was a definitive behavior change, because ASCE took away all the gray area in their rules. The Engineer had better know what it is they are sealing, for now it is personally the Engineer’s responsibility and no one else’s (Administration Hearing, p. 54, #90).

Some changes in the way that Architecture and Engineering are practice may not have had the desired effect. For example, as a very young apprentice, it was told to me countless times that Architects DO NOT “approved” shop drawings, only “review”. I have sat in many classes, required by the firm’s professional liability insurance carrier, where this has been espoused over and over, time and time again. It has been ingrained to our heads that there is a real difference in these two terms, yet in this case the administrative hearing process did not support such a differentiation. In fact the ruling stated, “This custom apparently rests upon the dubious basis that most engineers’ insurance carriers have directed that the word ‘approve’ not be used” (Administration Hearing, p. 31, #48). In reality, the administrative ruling concluded the regardless of which word is used, approval of the shop drawings is implied, and guarantees are provided to the owner (Administration Hearing, p. 9, #14, and p. 32, #49). Although much of the reasoning in this administrative hearing was derived from contractual influences of this case, it is clear that a conclusion in this venue will almost certainly be drawn in other venues and courts. So it almost appears that the insurance industry has been misleading professionals, and providing a false sense of security to those Registrants.

There are numerous reports that detail the engineering deficiencies that led to the skywalks’ collapse and the loss of Gillum’s and Duncan’s Registrations as Engineers. It is not the goal of this report to re-hash that information, but to assist Architects in ideas that might prevent future incidences or reoccurrences. It has

NBS, Figure 3.14, p. 30
NBS, Figure 3.14, p. 30

It has been reported that the Architect had been the driving force behind the selection of the welded channel box beam because it was easier to wrap in gypsum board (National Geographic, time mark 41:28), however according to one of the Architects that worked on the project, the drive was the single rod design, not the box beam design (Cassias, 2012). Also, these box beams were never exposed, so it is ludicrous to believe that wrapping the beams had any influence (NBS, Figure 3.14, p.30). It is also accepted that the stronger way to make the box beam connection would have been to place the channels back to back with the rod

UAB Figure 3
UAB Figure 3

running between the channels (UAB, Figure 3 and National Geographic, time mark 41:28) because when welding the channels toe to toe, the weakest part of the channel is used to resisted the strongest (eccentric) load (National Geographic, time mark 32:36). Another alternative that might have strengthen the connection enough to prevent the rods from puling through would have been the use of a bearing plate to spread the load so that the channels would carry the (axial) load through the web (UAB, Figure 4). That still may have not addressed the ability for the channels to

UAB Figure 4
UAB Figure 4

carry the load, but an up sizing of the channel size would have compensated enough for that.

As a reflection of the psychological effects of the collapse on the public, when the walkways were rebuilt, they were supported by large massive columns, coming up from the floor, to provide a sense of strength and stability (National Geographic, time mark 45:37), the exact opposite of the floating design originally proposed by the Architect. Without such a redesign it is possible that the Hyatt would

have never shed the stigma of the past disaster. Furthermore, the half million dollars it took to rebuild the skywalks (UAB, 1999) dwarfed the $140 million paid out in damages (KSHB Action News, 2011).

The final human behavior to examine here is the way the community has dealt with this catastrophic event over the years. First, the Skywalk Memorial Foundation sponsors a website ( and book to help fund a permanent memorial of the event. The book contains 168 pages to mark the 30th anniversary of that dark tragic summer night, and the loss of 114 precious lives. The website contains stories of the disaster and people that were there, and the names of those that perished. This has become one of the ways the community has used to cope with this tragic event.

Ethical Issues

Most of the resources you will find today on this event are very centered on the ethical issues surrounding particularly Gillum and Duncan and its engineering overtones. Texas A & M and University of Alabama – Birmingham have reports are very strong resources for this area. However, as this report has always been from the perspective of the Architect, this section will not deviate from that viewpoint. For the Architect, the ethical beliefs and practices of the consultants have a very strong impact for the practice of Architecture. First of all, the Architect is the one that holds the contract with the owner. A failure of any consultant will place the Architect in the middle because that is the prime contract holder with the owner. Even with this event, the Architect was cleared, but ended using their own professional liability insurance through this event (Cassias, 2012). This alone should impact every Architect in practice today, and the decisions that are made with respect to selecting consultant team members. Observe your consultants, how do they react when an issue arises? If their first action is to defend themselves, even before all the facts are gathered, then the Architect should consider finding another consultant for the needed role. Does the consultant miss a large amount of little things that might indicate a level of carelessness? All this may indicate how the consultant will react when a major or catastrophic event occurs, because it is often not the consultant, but the insurance carrier that will dictate how the conflict will be resolved.

As mentioned before, this becomes very dominant in the case of the Hyatt Regency. When the atrium’s roof collapsed while under construction in October of 1979, Gillum and Duncan had the best opportunity to avoid the deadly events of July 1981, and they failed to capitalize on that opportunity. At that time, Gillum and Duncan should have reviewed every detail thoroughly to verify structural integrity, and no one will ever really know why they did not. Only speculation can be made, based on their actions. Based on their actions, it would not be hard to build a case that their ethical practice would be that of individual ethical egoism. This is where the ethical acts are dictated in the serving of one’s best interest regardless of the impacts to others. One example of this is where Gillum denied making the claim that G.C.E. had checked every connection, when many others said the opposite (Administration Hearing, p. 94, #164). Understanding that an admission of this type, at that time, completely destroys any potential defense that could be offered in litigation, it quite easy to conclude this was an act of individual ethical egoism, whether directed by Gillum or his insurance company / lawyer. This was not the only time that Gillum and Duncan found themselves in this situation with similar results. Gillum and Duncan need to assume the responsibility for their actions (ASCE, 2012, Pod cast, time mark 3:05)

During the administrative proceedings, Gillum’s and Duncan’s defense attempted to establish that other Engineers, employed by the steel fabricator and detailer, and had responsibilities themselves for insuring the integrity of those connections. Yet the administrative commission offered no opinion on those claims, it did recognize that even if there were responsibilities established by others, it would not absolve Gillum and Duncan from their responsibilities as the primary engineers for the project (Administration Hearing, p. 171, footnote 42). Again showing the individual ethical egoism maintained by both Gillum and Duncan.

Consider this, in October 1979, the atrium roof collapsed, and two Engineering firms determined that the collapse was essentially a construction defect, and the design Engineers found that the atrium’s roof failed to allow for natural building movement (expansion and contraction), as indicated on the architectural drawings, the application of Kant’s duty ethics (Thiroux, p. 57) would have prompted Gillum and Duncan to perform a full review of the details, yet they failed to perform any such review. This failure would have been a breach in duty ethics, so one could conclude that Gillum and Duncan did not subscribe to Kant’s duty ethics in this instance. There is a related ethical theory that might come into view here as well, that of the divine command theory (Thiroux, p. 57). This is much like Kant’s duty ethics; however the compelling force is a subscription to a “higher power”. Either would have produced the same basic results, a complete and thorough review of all the building connections. This goes back to the questions raised previously, why did Gillum and Duncan not perform that review? I would pose this question, why did the Architect not say anything? Did the Architect fail to bring this change to Gillum’s and Duncan’s attention? It is clear that the driving force behind the design was the single rod design, to augment implication of the floating of the skywalks (Cassias, 2012) architecturally, yet there is no evidence that the Architect had prior knowledge of the double rod design before the shop drawings were submitted for review. So why was the question not asked during the shop drawing review process by the architect? There is no evidence that answers these questions, but every Architect needs to keep this series of events in the back of their mind at all times. Does the Architect really want to delegate that much decision making authority to consultants when it comes to architectural design?

© 2012 Dan Demland


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