Library Articles

Adapted from material by the Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering
Texas A&M University
NSF Grant Number DIR-9012252


Introduction to the Case

On July 17, 1981, the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, held a videotaped tea-dance party in their atrium lobby. With many party-goers standing and dancing on the suspended walkways, connections supporting the ceiling rods that held up the second- and fourth-floor walkways across the atrium failed, and both walkways collapsed onto the crowded first-floor atrium below. (The fourth-floor walkway collapsed onto the second-floor walkway, while the offset third-floor walkway remained intact.)

As the United States' most devastating structural failure in terms of loss of life and injuries, the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkways collapse left 114 dead and in excess of 200 injured. In addition, millions of dollars in costs resulted from the collapse, and thousands of lives were adversely affected.

The hotel had only been in operation for approximately one year at the time of the walkways collapse, and the ensuing investigation of the accident revealed some unsettling facts:

  1. During January and February, 1979, the design of the hanger rod connections was changed in a series of events and disputed communications between the fabricator (Havens Steel Company) and the engineering design team (G.C.E. International, Inc., a professional engineering firm). The fabricator changed the design from a one-rod to a two-rod system to simplify the assembly task, doubling the load on the connector, which ultimately resulted in the walkways collapse.
  2. The fabricator, in sworn testimony before the administrative judicial hearings after the accident, claimed that his company (Havens) telephoned the engineering firm (G.C.E.) for change approval. G.C.E. denied ever receiving such a call from Havens.
  3. On October 14, 1979 (more than one year before the walkways collapsed), while the hotel was still under construction, more than 2700 square feet of the atrium roof collapsed because one of the roof connections at the north end of the atrium failed. In testimony, G.C.E. stated that, on three separate occasions, they requested on-site project representation during the construction phase; however, these requests were not acted on by the owner (Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation), due to additional costs of providing on-site inspection.
  4. Even as originally designed, the walkways were barely capable of holding up the expected load, and would have failed to meet the requirements of the Kansas City Building Code.

Due to evidence supplied at the Hearings, a number of principals involved lost their engineering licenses, a number of firms went bankrupt, and many expensive legal suits were settled out of court. The case serves as an excellent example of the importance of meeting professional responsibilities, and what the consequences are for professionals who fail to.

Cast of Characters

In 1976, as owner, Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation commenced a project to design and build a Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, and on April 4, 1978, Crown entered into a standard contract with G.C.E. International, Inc. Professional Consulting Firm of Structural Engineers (1980 formerly called Jack D. Gillum & Associates, Ltd. changed name to G.C.E. May 5, 1983).

Principals

Jack D. Gillum, P.E. - structural engineering state licensed since February 26, 1968

Daniel M. Duncan, P.E. - structural engineering state licensed since February 27, 1979

PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc., architect.

G.C.E. agreed to provide, "all structural engineering services for a 750-room hotel projected located at 2345 McGee Street, Kansas City, Missouri."

On or about December 19, 1978, Eldridge Construction Company, the general contractor on the Hyatt project, entered into a subcontract with Havens Steel Company Professional Fabricator, who agreed to fabricate and erect the atrium steel for the Hyatt project.

Chronology of the Hyatt Regency Walkways Collapse
  • Early 1976: Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation (owner) commences project to design and build a Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.

  • July 1976: Gillum-Colaco, Inc. (G.C.E. International, Inc., 1983), a Texas corporation, selected as the consulting structural engineer for the Hyatt project.

  • July 1976: Hyatt project in schematic design development.

  • Summer 1977: Phase. G.C.E.-assisted owner and architect (PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc.) developed various plans for hotel project, and decided on basic design.

  • Late 1977: Bid set of structural drawings and specifications

  • Early 1978: Project prepared using standard Kansas City, Missouri, Building Codes.

  • April 4, 1978: Actual contract entered into by G.C.E. and the architect, PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc. G.C.E. agreed to provide "all structural engineering services for a 750-room hotel project located at 2345 McGee Street, Kansas City, Missouri."

  • Spring 1978: Construction on hotel begins.

  • August 28, 1978: Specifications on project issued for construction, based on the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) standards used by fabricators.

  • December 1978: Eldridge Construction Company, general contractor on the Hyatt project, enters into subcontract with Havens Steel Company. Havens agrees to fabricate and erect the atrium steel for the Hyatt project.

  • January–February 1979: Events and communications between G.C.E. and Havens determine design change from a single to a double hanger rod box beam connection for use at the fourth floor walkways. Telephone calls disputed; however, because of alledged communications between engineer and fabricator, Shop Drawing 30 and Erection Drawing E3 are changed.

  • February 1979: G.C.E. receives 42 shop drawings (including Shop Drawing 30 and Erection Drawing E-3) on February 16, and returns them to Havens stamped with engineering review stamp approval on February 26.

  • October 14, 1979: Part of the atrium roof collapses while the hotel is under construction. Inspection team called in. Their contract dealt primarily with the investigation of the cause of the roof collapse and created no obligation to check any engineering or design work beyond the scope of that investigation and contract.

  • October 16, 1979: Owner retains an independent engineering firm, Seiden-Page, to investigate the cause of the atrium roof collapse.

  • October 20, 1979: Gillum writes owner, stating he is undertaking both an atrium collapse investigation as well as a thorough design check of all the members comprising the atrium roof.

  • October–November 1979: Reports and meetings from engineer to owner/architect, assuring overall safety of the entire atrium.

  • July 1980: Construction of hotel complete, and the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel opened for business.

  • July 17, 1981: Connections supporting rods from the ceiling that held up the second and fourth floor walkways across the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapse, killing 114 and injuring in excess of 200 others.

  • February 3, 1984: Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors files complaint against Daniel M. Duncan, Jack D. Gillum, and G.C.E. International Inc., charging gross negligence, incompetence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering in connection with their performance of engineering services in the design and construction of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.

  • November, 1984: Duncan, Gillum, and G.C.E. International, Inc. found guilty of gross negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering. Subsequently, Duncan and Gillum lost their licenses to practice engineering in the State of Missouri, and G.C.E. had its certificate of authority as an engineering firm revoked. American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) adopts report that states structural engineers have full responsibility for design projects.

Duncan and Gillum are now practicing engineers in states other than Missouri.

Background: Structural Failure during the Atrium Tea Dance

In 1976, Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation initiated a project for designing and building a Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City Missouri. In July of 1976, Gillum-Colaco, Inc., a Texas corporation, was selected as the consulting structural engineer for the project. A schematic design development phase for the project was undertaken from July 1976 through the summer of 1977. During that time, Jack D. Gillum (the supervisor of the professional engineering activities of Gillum-Colaco, Inc.) and Daniel M. Duncan (working under the direct supervision of Gillum, the engineer responsible for the actual structural engineering work on the Hyatt project) assisted Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation (the owner) and PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc. (the architect on the project) in developing plans for the hotel project and deciding on its basic design. A bid set of structural drawings and specifications for the project were prepared in late 1977 and early 1978, and construction began on the hotel in the spring of 1978. The specifications on the project were issued for construction on August 28, 1978.

On April 4, 1978, the actual written contract was entered into by Gillum-Colaco, Inc. and PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc. The contract was standard in nature, and Gillum-Colaco, Inc. agreed to provide all the structural engineering services for the Hyatt Regency project. The firm Gillum-Colaco, Inc. did not actually perform the structural engineering services on the project; instead, they subcontracted the responsibility for performing all of the structural engineering services for the Hyatt Regency Hotel project to their subsidiary firm, Jack D. Gillum & Associates, Ltd. (hereinafter referenced as G.C.E.). According to the specifications for the project, no work could start until the shop drawings for the work had been approved by the structural engineer.

Three teams with particular roles to play in the construction system employed in building the Hyatt Regency Hotel, were contracted for the project:

  1. PBNDML and G.C.E. made up the "design team," and were authorized to control the entire project on behalf of the owner.
  2. Eldridge Construction Co., as the "construction team," was responsible for general contracting.
  3. The "inspection team," made up of two inspecting agencies (H&R Inspection and General Testing), a quality control official, a construction manager, and an investigating engineer (Seiden and Page).

On December 19, 1978, Eldridge Construction Company, as general contractor, entered into a subcontract with Havens Steel Company, who agreed to fabricate and erect the atrium steel for the Hyatt project.

G.C.E. was responsible for preparing structural engineering drawings for the Hyatt project: three walkways spanning the atrium area of the hotel. Wide flange beams with 16-inch depths (W16x26) were used along either side of the walkway and hung from a box beam (made from two MC8x8.5 rectangular channels, welded toe-to-toe). A clip angle welded to the top of the box beam connected these beams by bolts to the W section. This joint carried virtually no moment, and therefore was modeled as a hinge. One end of the walkway was welded to a fixed plate and would be a fixed support, but for simplicity, it could be modeled as a hinge. This only makes a difference on the hanger rod nearest this support (it would carry less load than the others and would not govern design). The other end of the walkway support was a sliding bearing modeled by a roller. The original design for the hanger rod connection to the fourth floor walkway was a continuous rod through both walkway box beams.

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