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Background information

The collapse has happened during a tea dance hosted in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, on 17th July, 1981. The tea dance came to its tragic end when the second and fourth floor of skywalks crumpled onto a crowded dance floor (Abkowitz 11). 114 people have died and another 216 got serious injuries. People were standing and dancing on the walkways that were suspended above the lobby at the levels of the second, third, and fourth floor. Whitbeck says “connections supporting the ceiling rods that held up the second and fourth floors walkways failed” (173). It was noted that the fourth floor walkway collapsed onto the second floor one. Whitbeck indicates that the third floor walkway, which was an offset from the other two, remained in place (173).

The Hyatt Regency hotel was opened in Kansas City, in July of 1980. It cost almost 50 million dollars to build the hotel, which had been projected to have 45 floors and become the tallest building in the city. Abkowitz says that the most notable of its eye catching design elements was a 60 foot, four storied glass atrium lobby, crossed by three skywalks on the second, third, and fourth floors (12).

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That tragic accident had a great impact on the design and construction industry than any other failure in recent times. Feld and Carper state that the magnitude of litigation and discussion considering this incident in the engineering literature has exceeded any other single structural failure in history (215). In addition, the authors say that when the failure occurred, after 7:00 pm, almost 2000 people were listening to music and dancing on the floor of the lobby and all three walkways. Many of the people crowded on the walkways were local residents of Kansas City. The rescue operation of the collapse took more than 12 hours and required to remove 64 tons of debris (Feld and Carper 215).

Reasons

The construction of the Kansas City Hyatt dated back to early 1976, when Crown Centre Redevelopment Corporation (CCRC) began to work with the initiative PBNDML architects, Planners, Inc as the project architect. Abkowitz says that, in April 1978, the firm of Gillum Colaco was hired to provide structural engineering services. One of the subsidiaries of this firm, Jack D. Gillum & Associates was subcontracted to perform all of the engineering work for the hotel construction (Abkowitz 11). Gillum, engineer of record for the project, was an experienced professional who held more than 20 professional engineering licenses throughout the United States. Daniel Duncan, one of the engineers under Gillum’s supervision, was designated as a project engineer for the Kansas City Hyatt.

The Hyatt project was scheduled according to the method of fast track construction. Abkowitz mentioned that the technique used in building the hotel entailed commencing construction before the final designs had been complete hence reducing the amount of time taken to build a facility (12). In addition, Eldridge Construction Company (ECC) was selected as the construction contractor. ECC eventually subcontracted to Havens Steel Company (HSC) to fabricate and erect the steel atrium (Abkowitz 12). 

Abkowitz further says that the design called for the fourth floor walkway to hang directly above the second floor one with the third floor skywalk offset. They were suspended parallel to the others (12). In this case, the engineering sketch called for the second and fourth floor walkways to hang from a single set of rods, anchored to the ceiling of atrium. Abkowitz indicated “each rod had to be threaded continuously from one level to the next to accommodate the nuts that would support the walkways” (12).

Consequently, Feld and Carper indicated that the atrium’s space in which the failure occurred was a four-storey open lobby between a wing of meeting rooms, restaurants and a 40-storey hotel tower that includes 733 rooms (216). Each of the three 37 m (120 ft) long walkways was supported by six 32-mm (1.25 in) diameter tension rods, dramatically suspended from the roof structure. The walkways were 2.7 m (8.7 ft) wide. Feld and Carper state that the fourth floor walkway was suspended from the ceiling by one set of steel rods; the second floor walkway was suspended from the fourth floor box beams by a second set of rods (216). A separate walkway located at the third floor level was not involved in the collapse, but had structural deficient.

According to Feld and Carper, the most probable technical cause of the failure was a deficient connection, considering that the steel suspension of rods failed to connect the box beams that supported the fourth floor walkway (216). This caused the fourth and second floor walkways to fall on the floor of the atrium (Feld and Carper 216). According to Bosela, the collapse of the walkways was reasoned by a combination of procedural errors and technical causes (254).

Moreover, structural tests conducted at the National Bureau of Standards clearly demonstrated that the connections as originally shown on the design drawing were not capable of supporting the gravity load required by the relevant building code (Bosela et al 255). The deficiency was compounded by the change of supporting rod, which doubled the load on the connection making its failure inevitable. 

The ramifications of the event

Abkowitz mentions that if the hanging design had not been changed, the original connection still would have violated local safety standards (17). According to Kansas City Building code, in order to use the walkway safely, the connections should have been designed to hold approximately 17 tons. The connections as indicated by the engineering drawings for the single hanging system would have supported only 10.25 tons. Its required capacity was overestimated. This oversight might also explain why the third floor walkway was in the process of facing structural failure.

According to the Hess’ words, the court noted that the structural engineer’s duty was to determine whether designed and approved plans provided structural safety in order to prevent strong probability of harm (49). The court resolved that indifference to the duty was indifference to the harm. When the appellate court delivered its decision in 1998, the victims and their families settled their lawsuits arising from the collapse, so the court’s decision did not affect them. There were made several changes in legal regulations to prevent similar failures in the future. All engineers must observe three main operational changes:

  1. A.P.E. should prepare all steel drawings provided by fabricators. The fabricators P.E. must seal the drawings before the engineer of record will approve them.
  2. All project engineers within G.C.E. should personally seal, sign and take responsibility for all aspects of the project performed under their direction.
  3. All engineers, technicians and draftsmen should follow the quality control analysis manual.

The court law further instituted that when the owners designated representatives for providing the design, drawings and specifications, the fabricator and erector were not responsible for the suitability, adequacy or building code’s conformance of the design (Hess 49). The courts also outlined that when the fabricator submitted a request to change details of connection that were described in the contact documents, the fabricator had to notify the owners’ designated representatives for design and construction, writing the submission of the building in advance.

Analysis

Analysis shows that the technical cause of the failure was quickly established and later confirmed by numerous investigators. Bosela states that a deficient connection at the juncture of suspension rods and a box beam that had been built up of welded channels caused a collapse of the fourth and second floor (255). In the context of a procedural standpoint, the original, single rod connection had been modified to a two rod support during the construction process. The connection had been designed neither by the engineer of record nor by the fabricator engineers. Bosela states that the detail, which has anchored the rods along the welded seam of two standard steel channels, shaped a weak point in the connection (255).

Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway Collapse has concerned the issues of personal, professional and communal values with respect to business practices and moral questions.

Hess indicates that code of ethics does not have the force of law, but it is valuable regarding professionals incorporated into the licensure law (50). The violation of code may be admissible into evidence considering a civil action of a client or an injured third party. Following the collapse of Hyatt Regency Walkway, it was important to protect the interests of the client and public safety. It is also incumbent upon professionals to be familiar with and follow the rules of conduct adopted by applicable professional organizations and those embodied in the states regulatory scheme.

One of the major questions that one should ask is why the design failed. Gad-el-Hak says that failure was attributed to the addition of another rod in the actual design; the load on the nut connecting the fourth floor segment was increased (40). It was noted that the original load for each hanger rod was to be 90kN. However, the load was doubled to 181 kN on the fourth floor box beam after the designing alteration. It is important to question why the walkways did not meet the local building code. The other important aspect that should be critically analyzed is the schedule constraints. It was noted that created environment had reduced the probability of discovering design and construction errors.      

Another important issue regarding this accident is responsibility. Gad-el-Hak states that one of the major problems with the Hyatt Regency project was the lack of communication between parties (40). The drawings prepared by G.C.E. were only preliminary sketches; however, Havens used them as final designs. The drawings were used to create the components of the structure. Gad-el-Hak also says that an engineer has a responsibility to his or her employer and, most important, to society (43). In the Hyatt Regency case, the lives of the public were hinged on G.C.E’s ability to design a structurally sound walkway. The insufficient review of the final design has led to the failure of the design and a massive loss of people’s lives. 

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