When Bob Berkebile rushed to the chaotic scene of the Hyatt Regency disaster, his first thought was, Did I kill these people?
It was the night of July 17, 1981. Berkebile and his wife, Libby, were on their way to a dinner party in the Lakewood neighborhood. As they rounded the southern edge of downtown Kansas City, the couple couldn't help but notice the wailing of sirens and a staggering parade of speeding firetrucks. When they arrived at the party, Berkebile says, the hostess met them in the yard and rushed them inside to the TV news reports.
At 7:05 that evening, as a live band began playing "Satin Doll" for hundreds of spectators and dancers, the fourth-story skywalks at the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed, catapulting dozens of people into the air and sending twisted metal and slabs of concrete onto the packed lobby floor.
Berkebile jumped back in the car and rushed to the Hyatt. By the time he arrived, less than an hour after the collapse, the area was choked with shocked spectators and frantic family members. The entry was lined with police. Berkebile walked up to the first one he saw and told the officer who he was: the architect in charge of the hotel's design.
He was ushered inside. Pipes torn away from the walls pumped water onto the scene. Arms and legs jutted from the debris. Police officers tried to extract lifeless victims in blood-soaked clothing; fatal gashes left skulls exposed. Bodies piled up five-high on a wooden pallet in the corner of the dust- and exhaust-filled lobby. An adjoining conference room, prepared for a floral convention, quickly became a makeshift morgue.
Rain speckled the ambulances that buzzed between the Crown Center hotel and Truman Medical Center, until rescue workers delicately extracted the last survivor at 4:30 a.m. Three hours later, construction workers peeled away the last concrete slab, revealing 31 bodies. A police spokesman announced that all of the victims had been recovered.
The final count: 114 dead, 216 injured.
"I spent a really long night on the rescue team. And as we were pulling those dead people, those seriously injured people, out, I was confronting totally new questions," Berkebile says.
He had been one of two principal architects in charge of the design of the Hyatt skywalks. Not even 24 hours after the collapse, accusations flew from city officials and local architects: The design was flawed; any skilled practitioner could have seen that the airy bridges, suspended by just a handful of inch-thick steel rods, would fail. The lawsuits and investigations that followed ate up most of Berkebile's time for nearly two straight years. He spent more hours than he can count in conference rooms, staring at lawyers, going over what, up to that time, was the nation's most deadly structural failure.
"It was surreal, just ugly," Berkebile says of the legal process.
Tom Nelson, a partner in Berkebile's architecture firm, says he was convinced of two things in the aftermath of the collapse. First, he was certain that it wasn't the architects' fault. He was right. The National Bureau of Standards determined that the engineers, not the architects, had made a fatal mistake in calculating the strength of the hanger rods. But Nelson was also convinced that any company with a connection to the disaster would never resurrect its business.
"I went to an interview for a project two days after to make the point to the staff, to make a point to everybody that, despite this horrible thing, we were going to stay in business," he says. "But I didn't believe it."