Copyright 1981 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
July 20, 1981, Monday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section A; Page 1, Column 1; National Desk
LENGTH: 1372 words

HEADLINE: BEFORE HOTEL DISASTER, WALKWAY SWAYED TO THE RHYTHM OF DANCERS

BYLINE: By WILLIAM K. STEVENS, Special to the New York Times
DATELINE: KANSAS CITY, Mo., July 19



BODY:

The Steve Miller Orchestra was playing Duke Ellington's ''Satin Doll,'' a cool jazz tune that for all its smoothness will support a moderate jitterbug or Lindy at the medium swing tempo being laid down by Mr. Miller as bandleader. In the lobby and on the aerial walkways of the flashy, year-old Hyatt Regency Hotel two nights ago, men in tuxedos and women in elegant gowns were dancing or just keeping time to the resurrected big-band sound.

Later, some who had been there said that the walkways, suspended from the ceiling of the cavernous lobby atrium by one-and-a-halfinch-thick steel rods, swayed with the people's movement. Witnesses told rescuers, as recounted by Harold Knabe, a spokesman for the Kansas City Fire Department, that one walk ''got to swaying and bouncing up and down.'' The movement was not dramatic, Mr. Knabe said witnesses told him, but more a soft undulation.

Suddenly, the topmost walkway, about four stories up, tore loose from the suspension rods and came crashing down on another, two levels below. Both fell to the lobby floor on top of dancers and spectators, crushing hundreds of people. The death toll in the accident rose to 113 today after two persons died at area hospitals.Another 186 were injured, in one of the worst hotel catastrophes in American history.

The investigations now started are expected to focus heavily on that reported bouncing and swaying of the walks, and on the question of whether the overhead walkways were subjected to dangerous and improper use when those attending the Friday night Tea Dance were allowed to congregate there.

No one with an official stake in the situation, the architects, building contractors, hotel owners and operators, or the city authorities, is venturing an opinion on whether the tragedy will be traced to improper design, improper construction or improper use of the facility. Experts in the field say that any or all of those reasons are possible explanations, and that only a detailed investigation, probably lasting several weeks, will yield the answer.

Focus on Possible Overcrowding

But officials familiar with the accident have suggested that the 75-foot-long concrete walkways might have been overcrowded and unable to bear the combined stresses of weight and movement to which they were subjected.

If that proves true, further questions are likely to be raised about whether existing building codes offer adequate protection to cover such exotic designs. Another likely question is why was a crowd of people allowed to dance on a surface not designed for such movement.

Mayor Richard L. Berkley said today that a thorough review of Kansas City's building code would be conducted as part of an all-out inquiry into the accident. The Mayor said that the city's code was based on a national model building code that was used nearly universally throughout the nation.

Meanwhile, Hyatt officials said that the suspension system used to support the Kansas City walkways was unique among the 59 hotels it owned or managed. ''This was the only design like this'' in the Hyatt chain, Pat Foley, the president of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, said at a news conference here yesterday. One expert familiar with hotel architecture said that if such an arrangement existed at other buildings besides Hyatt's, they were ''not very prevalent.''

Comparison With Other Walks

Mr. Foley said that only the Hyatt hotel at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport contained a similar walkway. Thomas Gaskill, a Hyatt regional vice president and manager of the O'Hare hotel, said that the walkways there were in fact 50-foot-long balconies, fully enclosed and structurally an integral part of the building.

He said the Chicago walks would not be closed to the public, but that, as a precaution, a thorough structural inspection would be undertaken there and at other Hyatt hotels in his region. Those include hotels in Columbus, Ohio, Dearborn, Mich., Minneapolis and Milwaukee. A Hyatt spokesman, Karen Blecka, said that no decision had been made on conducting similar inspections at the chain's other hotels across the nation.

The three walkways at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency consisted of two 16-inch steel I-beams cradled in doorways on opposites sides of the atrium, placed two, three and four stories above the lobby. The third-floor walkway was offset from the other two and remains in place. On top of the steel beams that formed the skeleton of each walkway was laid a steel sheet, forming the base of the walking surface; on top of that were placed several inches of concrete and a concrete veneer. The I-beams were hung, much like a suspension bridge, from the ends of the steel rods.

The passageways enabled hotel guests to go from their rooms on one side of the hotel to meeting rooms and a swimming pool on the other side without passing through the lobby. An authority on such matters said that under the building codes in common use, various parts of buildings were allowed to meet structural standards of varying stringency, depending upon expected use.

Structural Standards Vary

For example, the authority said, the standards for an auditorium or a meeting room would be more stringent than those for a walkway. If a walk was certified for the purpose of passing pedestrian traffic only, he said, and then subjected to higher loads, the stress could be too much. ''It can be designed perfectly well,'' he said, ''but if it's misused, it could collapse. If you designed a living room and then used a tractor in it, it would probably wind up in the basement.''

Mr. Foley said, however, that ''the catwalks were designed to hold people shoulder to shoulder - as many as you can jam on there.'' He said that officials of the Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation, the owner of the hotel that is managed by Hyatt, had assured Hyatt earlier this summer that the lobby was structurally capable of handling large crowds. Crown Center Redevelopment is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hallmark Inc., the greeting card company that has its headquarters here.

Several authorities, however, have noted that the rhythmic movement of dancing or foot-tapping by a large number of people could have caused vibrations that would cause such a suspension span to collapse, as some bridges have done.

Mr. Knabe said after the walkways had fallen, he saw the suspension rods still hanging from the ceiling. He said the ends of some rods still had the securing nut attached, perhaps indicating that the rod ends had pulled through the steel I-beams to which they were attached.

One Engineer's Conclusion The Kansas City Star reported today that a local structural engineer, who would not allow his name to be used, had inspected the wreckage and concluded that the rods pulled out of the I-beams because only relatively small washers were used between the bottoms of the beams and the steel nuts on the ends of the rods.

The hotel, on the southern edge of downtown Kansas City, is part of a new complex of shops, stores, restaurants and apartments called Crown Center, which contains both the Hallmark headquarters and the Crown Center Hotel.

The Eldridge & Son Construction Company, a now-dormant part of a long-established family construction business, was the general contractor for both hotels. The contractor was selected on a sealed bid basis.

A different contractor built the Kemper Arena, the sports facility whose roof collapsed here on June 4, 1979. No one was injured in that incident, and the arena has long since been repaired and restored to use.

The Hyatt was designed by a consortium of local architects consisting of the firms of Duncan Architects Inc., Patty Berkebile Nelson Associates, and Monroe & Lefebvre Architects Inc. They were not selected on a bid basis, as is frequently the case.



GRAPHIC: Illustrations: Photo of Thomas Weir (Page A10)