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Skywalk Survivor Recalls Horror, Hopes Lessons Were Learned

July 15, 1991

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Sally Firestone stood on a suspended walkway watching dancers below when her world came crashing down with tons of concrete and steel.

The collapse of two 120-foot-long skywalks at the year-old Hyatt Regency Crown Center on July 17, 1981, killed 114 people and injured 200. It left Firestone, now 44, a quadriplegic.

″I don’t think I was ever bitter,″ she said. ″That just isn’t part of my make-up. I guess my reaction is more hoping that people, engineers and inspectors and what not, learned their lesson and that it wouldn’t be repeated.″

Experts such as Edward Pfrang of the American Society of Civil Engineers say the accident had a dramatic impact on construction methods.

Pfrang, then with the National Bureau of Standards, headed a seven-month federal investigation that blamed a design change during construction for the collapse.

The second-floor walkway was suspended from one at the fourth-floor level, rather than having both suspended from one set of rods attached to the hotel’s ceiling as in the original design. The investigation showed that as a result, the structure couldn’t hold even a third of the weight required by building codes.

″The only silver lining is that somewhere, there’s a building or a bridge, or something that’s going to be built, that’s not going to fall down because of what happened here,″ said Kansas City lawyer Patrick McLarney. He represented the state engineering board in proceedings against two structural engineers who were stripped of their licenses.

Pfrang said a professional practices manual his society developed after the accident is now widely used.

But the St. Louis attorney who represented the engineers disagrees.

″I’d like to be able to say that the construction industry is producing a product that’s safer and better, but I don’t think that’s true,″ said lawyer Lawrence Grebel, who represented Jack Gillum and Dan Duncan.

An administrative law judge found Gillum and Duncan guilty of ″gross negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct″ for failing to realize the design changes would be catastrophic.

Ms. Firestone sued and was awarded $12.75 million in damages, the largest among settlements and judgments totaling more than $140 million.

She spent seven months in hospitals, returning to her job at IBM about a year after the collapse. She took permanent disability leave three years later.

Rescue workers say they bear emotional scars.

″No one who was there will ever be the same,″ said Dr. Joe Waeckerle, who spent hours looking for survivors.

Arnett Williams, the deputy fire chief who directed search and rescue efforts, retired in 1983 and is now a minister.

″I really don’t dwell on the Hyatt,″ said Williams. ″I just kind of block that out of my life and go on. I put it in the back of my closet, in the back of my mind, and close the door.″

The hotel is owned by Crown Center Development Corp., a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards Inc. It no longer has skywalks and guests rarely ask about the collapse, said general manager Steve Trent.

″When I first got here six years ago there were a few references to it,″ Trent said. ″But I haven’t heard anything about it in a long time, probably a good three years.″