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 It Was 25 Years Ago the Skywalks Collapsed at the
Kansas City Hyatt Regency Killing 114 People
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By Matt Campbell and Sam Baker - The Kansas City Star, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

July 17, 2006 - It was 25 years ago Monday that the sky fell in Kansas City.

Every longtime Kansas Citian knows the story of the Hyatt Regency hotel skywalks collapse that killed 114 people.

A quarter-century later, the city still has no public memorial to those who died or to the survivors and rescue workers scarred by the event.
Some people think a memorial is not necessary, or is even a bad idea.

“You can’t keep living in the past,” said Betty Nelson, who survived the disaster after being buried in its rubble.

But others say it is not right that Kansas City has no plaque, sculpture or reflecting pool on which to pour community grief and respect. There has been talk about it for years, but only last week was a Web site created to gauge whether there was enough interest to form a fundraising committee.

The trend toward public memorials has gained momentum in recent years, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. A physical, public acknowledgment can serve a purpose, sociologists say.

“If you don’t have some sort of memorial in Kansas City dedicated to this, then how will we remember it? How will future generations think about it?” asked Lori Peek, who was a 6-year-old growing up in Waverly, Kan., when the Hyatt disaster occurred.

Today she is a sociologist and disaster researcher at Colorado State University, and is fascinated by the subject of a Hyatt memorial.
“Disasters become fundamental parts of communities’ identities just as they affect individual lives,” she said.

Another sociologist, Alice Fothergill of the University of Vermont, is surprised Kansas City has no Hyatt memorial.

“People from Kansas City know exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard, ‘Oh, my God, you’re not going to believe ” she said, what happened at the new Hyatt,’

Fothergill said the tall hotel serves as an icon of sorts. When she visited Kansas City recently, her father-in-law pointed to the Hyatt in the skyline as the site of the disaster.

“It’s a marker for people who live here,” Fothergill recalled thinking.

But Sandi Edmundson of Gladstone, who lost her “baby cousin” Jacqueline Brooks, thinks there should be a specific, dedicated memorial.
“It affected the whole city, and why is there nothing about it?” Edmundson asked. “I have just never understood. We have memorials for so many other things. What’s holding this up?”

The subject is naturally a sensitive one to the now-Hyatt Regency Crown Center hotel and to Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., which owns the building.

“It’s a delicate balance,” said Hyatt spokesman Mark Champa. “To some it would bring closure and to others it would be a constant reminder of the event.”

Champa said he did not think Hyatt would oppose a memorial somewhere. But he said decisions involving the hotel building would be made by Crown Center.

Crown Center President Bill Lucas said it was incorrect to assume — as some do — that Crown Center or its owner, Hallmark Cards Inc., would adamantly block any memorial. He said the company has heard from some who say a memorial would be painful.

“So consequently that causes us to think that the most appropriate thing for us is to not necessarily deal with that issue but to make Crown Center as safe as it can be,” Lucas said. “Our priority is to make certain that our buildings are as safe as possible and to take steps to make sure that they’re overreaching in their standards.”

Many people with a Hyatt connection have since scattered around the country, but they do not forget.

Paula Rome, now of Colorado, lost her parents, Robert and Mary-Ellen Torrey. She was 19 at the time, and has spent years sorting through the grief. A memorial, she said, would have helped. For some time she has felt it would be an opportunity to remember the people, not just the event.

“For a lot of people, it’s a healing process, and you’re recognizing that, yeah, it was a horrible thing and these people died, but you’re remembering them, too,” said Rome, who recently started a grief-counseling group.

Dallas lawyer John Sullivan, who lost his mother, Kathryn Anne Sullivan, moved away, in part, because he could not bear the sight of the hotel. Sullivan, who named his daughter after his mom, has always found it “peculiar” that there is no public memorial.

Frank Freeman is angry. He gets so worked up talking about it that the heart attack survivor has to force himself to calm down. Freeman was standing so close to death that he found the toes of his shoes touching the just-fallen skywalks. His partner, Roger Grigsby, was killed. Freeman received neck and back injuries that have left him in physical pain for 25 years.

He eventually got $50,000 in a settlement, but he is still bitter. Someone should have gone to jail, Freeman believes. (There were no criminal charges, but two persons lost their engineering licenses in Missouri.)

Freeman fled Kansas City for years. “I couldn’t handle my anger and thought it best to get the heck out,” he said. Freeman returned to this area in December and is among those trying to stir interest in creating a memorial. “It doesn’t have to be a multimillion-dollar project,” Freeman said.

Another man who wants to be a catalyst is Mark Erkenbeck, who recently entered the Hyatt lobby for the first time since that night. When Erkenbeck learned of the disaster, he decided to go down there to give blood. First, he stopped to buy food and soft drinks for the rescuers. Passing them out got him waved into the chaotic lobby. He soon joined in to help claw at the debris pile, and ended up staying all night.
“There was a big clock across the street but, in here, time just didn’t go,” Erkenbeck recalled on a recent weekday morning in the Hyatt lobby.

He pointed down to where a woman bled to death, over to where the last buried survivor was found, and up to where the skywalks once hung. Hotel guests paid little attention to his gestures. “I’ll bet 80 percent of these people have no idea what happened,” Erkenbeck said. He has a vision of a memorial somewhere near the Hyatt in the form of a “fountain of life,” with chrome columns representing the victims and lights shooting up to the sky. He thinks Kansas Citians would contribute to a memorial fund if it was presented well and had credible business and civic backing.

Over the years public memorials have become more common for large-scale disasters.

Oklahoma City’s memorial includes row upon row of empty chairs to recall the 168 victims of the federal building bombing there in 1995. The Pentagon recently broke ground for a memorial to the 184 who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack there.

There are plans for a monument in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed that day, killing 40 passengers and crew. A memorial to the nearly 3,000 killed at ground zero in New York is supposed to open in 2009.

Grand Forks, N.D., built a memorial to its devastating 1997 flood, even though no one died as a direct result of it.

Sociologists Peek and Fothergill said America’s affinity for memorials was not as strong 25 years ago when the Hyatt disaster occurred, or 29 years ago when the Beverly Hills Supper Club disaster occurred in a suburb of Cincinnati. That fire in Southgate, Ky., killed 165 people in 1977. People still seek the spot to pay respects, but today it remains vacant and overgrown, without a memorial.

Southgate Mayor Chuck Melville said the community has always wanted one there, and the city would press any developer that buys the site to include one in plans.

Fothergill said people would always have different opinions about what was proper for a memorial. A fountain would be appropriate for Kansas City, she said, because that already is part of the city’s identity. But any substantive discussion must include many voices. “Disaster memorials are really complex,” Fothergill said. “There are political issues and economic issues and there are so many emotional issues for the victims’ families.”

Fothergill said she thought Crown Center and Hallmark would receive a positive response from the community if they allowed or participated in a memorial on their property.

But others have suggested nearby, and publicly owned, Washington Square Park at Pershing Road and Grand Boulevard as an alternative site. Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners President Sandra Aust said she had not heard that suggestion, but that it would receive a fair hearing.

“We would consider any reasonable proposal that comes from our citizens,” Aust said.

Lucas, the Crown Center president, said if the parks board was ever presented with such a proposal, he would want Crown Center to be included in the discussion because Washington Square Park is across the street.

Fothergill said that, while generally it was important to place a memorial on the actual site of the event being memorialized, Washington Square Park could work.

“But I would think that people would still want to walk over and walk into the atrium,” she said. 

Exploring a memorial 

Mark Erkenbeck, a Hyatt rescuer, recruited Amy Kesler, a Web site consultant, to create hyattmemorial.org to gauge interest in a memorial. They are not asking for donations at this time. For more information, visit the Web site or e-mail info@hyattmemorial.org. 
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To reach Matt Campbell, call (816) 234-4905 or send e-mail to mcampbell@kcstar.com. 

Copyright (c) 2006, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA. NYSE:HDI, 

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Contact:
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Also See: Before Theres Trouble: Protect Your Hotel, Restaurant from Damaging Effects of Negative Media Exposure / March 2006
How to Master Your Next Disaster Protect your guests, educate your employees, and limit your liability / Julia L. Rider / JMBM / October 2004

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