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The Hyatt Regency Hotel disaster: A year later survivors still dance

By PAULA MAYNARD

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Robert Grant danced away the summer night to the swing music of the Steve Miller Orchestra, enjoying many of the same tunes he danced to at the Hyatt Regency Hotel less than a year ago.

The recent dance at another hotel ballroom might be an eerie reminder to some of the night most Kansas Citians would choose to forget - July 17, 1981, when two skywalks at the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed and killed 114, injured more than 200 and left the city in shock. But survivor Grant doesn't view it that way.

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'I'll never put (the images of the disaster) behind me,' said Grant, who was hospitalized two weeks with injuries he received that night. 'But I won't stop dancing.'

Neither will many other Hyatt Regency tea dance regulars who now attend twice-a-month dances at the rival Radisson-Muehleback Hotel.

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A year ago Saturday, Miller's trombonist had just completed his solo in Duke Ellington's melody 'Satin Doll' when the two 32-ton skywalks crashed to the Hyatt Regency lobby floor in an avalanche of concrete and steel. There was only a one-second warning for the 2,000 revelers.

Grant, 46, a salesman from suburban Raytown, was knocked down by debris. His partner escaped unharmed.

Grant's agony was filmed by a television news crew. Many times since he has watched his tiny image lying on the rosy tile -- an electronic deja vu.

The disaster scene has changed at the $50-million, 40-story Hyatt, the city's tallest building.

Gone are the three skywalks swinging artistically, but perilously, from the girders above. The glass roof and walls of the 60-foot-high atrium have been rebuilt at a cost exceeding $5 million with only one overhead walkway, anchored in bedrock.

In February the National Bureau of Standard's investigation concluded a weak skywalk suspension system had been responsible for the collapse. Edward Pfrang, who headed the NBS investigation, said any working engineer should have been able to see that the skywalks were so flimsy they could not even satisfy the city building code.

Now, thanks to the scrutiny of armies of reporters, lawyers and engineers prior to the building's reopening, the 2-year-old, 733-room Hyatt Regency may be one of the safest hotels in the world.

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But Jill Tvedten-Long, 22, is not so sure. She picketed with her three sisters and about 20 others at the Oct. 1 reopening of the hotel. She has never entered the building where her father, battalion fire chief John Tvedten, was killed.

Mrs. Tvedten-Long said she was disturbed then about what she considered the city's failure to enforce its building codes and she says she is still angry.

'Nothing has changed,' says Mrs. Tvedten-Long. 'Nothing can change. We cannot depend on other people for our safety. We cannot depend on other people to do their jobs well.'

Mark Williams, 35, the last living person pulled from the rubble that night, feels differently.

'Anger does no good,' said Williams, who was trapped in the debris 10 hours. 'People have to live with their own mistakes. My dad taught me that trying to get even is time twice wasted.'

'Both my wife and I are coping the best we can,' said Chuck Hayes, 33, a radio newsman who was the last victim to be released from the hospital. 'I still harbor lots of feelings of anger, and sometimes this tragedy seems like a lifetime ago and other times its seems like yesterday.'

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Hayes and his wife Jayne, 30, also attend physical therapy sessions three days a week. He was hospitalized 131 days.

No official service was planned by the city on the anniversary. Mayor Richard Berkley even suggested the news media was making more of the occasion than was warranted.

'We are all in the real world and we know people are going to have to have some difficult times,' he says. 'It's not in any way that people are not thought about, but my feeling was that (the anniversary) should be handled by each person in their own individual way. If you create an event, it makes it harder for some people.'

The bloodstained remains of the skywalks are locked in a warehouse in the shadow of the Hyatt, only a few blocks from another guarded building containing documents about the hotel's financing, its construction and the structural failure of the skywalks. Both depositories are protected by court order.

Of the more than a dozen defendants in a myriad of lawsuits, the biggest targets have been Hallmark Cards Inc., the parent company of Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. which owns the building, and Hyatt Corp., which leases the building for its subsidiary, Hyatt Hotels Corp.

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So far, insurers for Hallmark and Hyatt -- both private, family-owned corporations -- have paid $25 million to settle more than 160 claims.

More than 100 cases still are pending in state court and another handful are in federal court, where arguments over certification of a class action froze proceedings in October. These are expected to go to the U.S. Suupreme Court.

Michael Waldeck, who represents the insurers, says he does not expect more than 10 cases ever to go to trial.

In contrast to the fingerpointing and lawsuits which have pursued city inspectors and those who built and paid for the hotel, only praise has been showered on rescuers for their textbook-perfect efforts to extricate the living with giant cranes, jackhammers, blowtorches, chain saws and cans of lard.

Fire and hospital officials from Baltimore, New York, Seattle, Phoenix and Washington studied the rescue operation and were so impressed they are using it as a model for improving their own disaster response plans.

Meanwhile, Hallmark's Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. continues its $500 million plan to carve an 85-acre urban miracle out of a rundown warehouse district. And the hotel itself is making a brisk recovery despite a sagging economy.

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'Occupancy is exactly what it was one year ago and is right on forecast for 1982,' says spokesman Ginny Vineyard.

Hyatt officials had expected the hotel to take 2 to 3 years to recover and are pleased with its return to normalcy so early, she said.

They also are pleased that bandleader Steve Miller has returned to play during the week in the hotel's cavernous lobby. Sometimes he plays 'Satin Doll,' because, Miller says, 'It's such a good song.'

But for now it's only background music with three musicians. Any future tea dances, despite their popularity in the city, will be at theother hotels.

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