A lesson tragically learned

August 11, 2010

On July 17, 1981, a tragedy that was to have a profound impact on the construction industry occurred in Kansas City. Two walkways at the 1-year-old Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed, killing 114 people attending a tea dance. The collapse occurred because rods that connected the second-floor walkway to the bottom of the fourth-floor walkway, contrary to original plans, doubled the stress placed on the upper walkway.

Richard Weingart, a Denver structural engineer who is a former president of the American Consulting Engineers Council (recently renamed American Council of Engineering Companies), believes a Hyatt-type disaster is less likely to happen today.

The Hyatt Regency collapse, Weingart says, resulted from poor judgment and a series of events that, in combination, produced a disastrous result. Initially, the structural detail was poor. The contractor wanted a detail that would allow him to build more efficiently. Revised shop drawings were submitted, but the engineers didn't carefully check the new calculations.

Weingart thinks the incident has prompted design professionals to review more thoroughly and stay on top of change orders, and to make sure their designs meet a standard of constructability. Many design firms are now peer-reviewed to make sure they are following good procedures in designing and in preparing details — something that was "pretty rare" 20 years ago, Weingart notes.

Jack Gillum, the structural engineer for the Hyatt, lost his license to practice in Missouri as a result of the collapse. Gillum, now 72, speaks occasionally at professional conferences and last year addressed a forensic conference attended by 300 engineers. "Engineering societies need to talk about failures. That's how we learn," he recently told the Kansas City Star.

"Responsibility and ethics go hand in hand," Gillum said. "All engineers or engineering candidates must learn the enormous responsibility they assume to earn the right to be called Engineer of Record."

Weingart observes that some younger engineers are not old enough to remember the Hyatt tragedy. "A lot of the new generation of engineers come out of school believing that everything the computer spits out is perfect," he says. Emphasizing the need for intuition, he adds: "You still have to understand if the decimal point is in the right place. I'm more concerned that some kind of disaster might happen because of that than that we would have a repeat of a sequence of events such as those that led to the Hyatt tragedy."


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