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On 31st Anniversary of Kansas City Hyatt Disaster, Skywalk Memorial
Still Lacks Funds for Construction

By Matt Campbell, The Kansas City Star, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 17, 2012--Promoters of a memorial to the victims and rescuers of the Hyatt skywalks disaster hoped to have one in place in time for the 31st anniversary of the disaster today.

But they have not raised enough money to begin construction, and one of the founding members has resigned from the nonprofit board.

Frank Freeman, who had been president, said he quit because he did not want to compromise on the memorial design that was presented to the public a year ago.

But Brent Wright, another founding member and the new board president, said the concept -- an abstract sculpture in a small plaza -- remains essentially the same.

Fundraising, however, has been a concern despite more than 220 donations of money and in-kind services from individuals, companies and organizations.

"We've made good progress, but we've had challenges," Wright said, referring to the economy. "We still need a few substantial donations to get the project done."

Last year the promoters said they needed about $800,000 to create the memorial and establish an endowment. In December they were about $200,000 short. Wright could not say exactly how much was still needed. Another board member more familiar with those details was out of the country.

Donations to the nonprofit Skywalk Memorial Foundation are managed by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

Freeman, whose partner was among the 114 who died in the 1981 skywalks collapse, confirmed his decision to withdraw from the memorial project in an email to The Star.

"I resigned because the board voted to actually cut back on the design and cost of the memorial because they do not feel we will be able to raise the needed funds to complete the memorial as approved just before the 30th anniversary last year," Freeman said.

Wright said no decisions had been made, but discussions were taking place about how to pare costs, such as with the grading of the memorial site in Hospital Hill Park at 22nd Street and Gillham Road, within sight of the former Hyatt hotel, where the collapse occurred.

"There can be some things that could need to be changed slightly in scale, but the bulk of the project and the theme of the project, none of that has changed at all," said Wright, a Kansas City lawyer who lost his mother and stepfather, Karen and Eugene Jeter, in the collapse.

The disaster occurred when two skywalks suspended inside the lobby of the former Hyatt Regency hotel at Crown Center came crashing to the floor during a Friday night big-band dance party. Most of the victims were killed beneath the skywalks. More than 200 people were injured.

An investigation later found that the system used to attach the skywalks to vertical rods hanging from the ceiling was structurally unsound. No criminal charges were filed, but two people lost their engineering licenses in Missouri and Kansas.

The hotel was owned by Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. and managed by Hyatt. Last year the hotel became part of the Sheraton franchise.

Freeman was injured when the skywalks fell. He had been standing next to his partner, Roger Grigsby, who was killed. Freeman remained angry about the disaster. In 2006, as the 25th anniversary approached, he picketed in front of the hotel demanding a memorial.

Wright and John Sullivan, a Dallas lawyer who lost his mother, Kathryn Anne Sullivan, in the disaster, had also been wondering why no memorial had been created to commemorate the dead and acknowledge the emergency responders who worked through the night.

Freeman, Wright and Sullivan found each other and joined forces to create the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, of which Freeman became president. Vincent Ortega, the first police officer to reach the scene that night, also joined the board, as did Bill Quatman, general counsel and senior vice president for the Burns & McDonnell engineering company.

The foundation has received several large contributions for the project, including $75,000 in tax revenue from the city of Kansas City. The Hallmark Corporate Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the company that owns Crown Center, pledged $50,000. After initially declining, Hyatt agreed to donate $25,000 for the project.

Other donors include the law firm of Shook Hardy & Bacon, A. Zahner Co., the Tension Envelope Foundation, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City, The Kansas City Star books division and skywalks survivor Sally Firestone.

Centric Projects of Kansas City agreed to donate its services as construction manager for the memorial project.

Last year the foundation unveiled a design by artist Rita Blitt, who also donated her talent. It called for a stainless steel sculpture on a pedestal to be inscribed with the names of those who died. The work, which can be interpreted as a dancing couple or as a broken heart, would have elements that move with the wind. It would be placed in the center of a small plaza with seating and plantings and would be lit at night.

Wright said the memorial foundation cannot break ground until it has raised enough money to assure the park department that it can complete the project and establish a maintenance endowment. He said he was still hopeful that could happen this year.

Memorial officials are not organizing a formal observance of the 31st anniversary of the skywalks collapse today in order to conserve funds for the project.

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com.

___

(c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services



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