Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Hyatt Tragedy

30 years ago I covered the biggest local story of my career in television news.  At about 7 p.m. on Friday July 17, 1981 two skywalks spanning the lobby of the Crown Center Hyatt Hotel collapsed.  One pancaked on top of the other slamming onto the crowded lobby floor.  The loss of life was astounding.  114 people died and more than 200 more suffered all sorts of injuries, some devastating.

The day was like any other day for me at WDAF TV where I worked as the 10 p.m. producer.  I had one reporter working that night, Bob Thill along with two photographers, Mike Maier and J.W. Edwards.  I can't even begin to remember what story we had assigned Bob to cover but we had decided to skip one in particular.  They were holding a "tea dance" in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel.  It was one of many such dances which attracted large crowds but in my mind didn't seem to be very newsworthy.

Whatever was going on that night I know I must have been behind on my work because instead of going out and picking up food I had asked Mike Maier to pick me up a hamburger just before 7 p.m.  A few minutes later reporter Zan Anderson called into the newsroom and I answered.  Zan told me that a fire captain had just called him with a tip that there had been an accident at the Hyatt.  At that exact instance the scanners in the newsroom exploded.  The volume of emergency calls was mind blowing and I knew immediately that something very bad was going on at the Hyatt.

I immediately called Maier and told him to forget the food and head to the Hyatt.  Now I faced my biggest challenge, I had J.W. and I had Bob but I didn't have a live shot engineer on duty to run the microwave truck.  At the time under union rules the truck had to be operated by a union member.  I spent a frantic 15 minutes trying to get an engineer to agree to take the truck out.  J.W. knew how to set the truck up and we ended up getting the late great technical director Harry Thomas, to agree to accompany J.W. down to the Hyatt to set up a shot.

If my memory serves me correctly we got on shortly before 8 p.m.  The night is a complete blur.  I remember an angry Bob Thill coming back to the newsroom with tape, knowing he had been duped by Del Walters, who wanted to front coverage from the scene.  I remember Mike Maier coming back with the last video shot inside the hotel, water running onto the lobby floor, sheets covering bodies, and desperate first responders doing what they could to save those trapped.  I remember Mike Lewis and Jenny Hoffman coming in and helping coordinate the long night of coverage as more and more of our reporters and photographers came in to help out.

We knew early on that KMBC had gotten the scoop of the night.  Mike Mahoney, a relative newcomer as a reporter to the market, was covering the tea dance with photographer Dave Forestate.  They barely missed the actual collapse because they were changing tapes.  But the stunning aftermath they captured spoke volumes.  That night made Mahoney a reporting legend.  He has since backed it up with 30 years of top flight reporting with a special knack for politics.  The other thing I love about Mike is that he is a probably the biggest Bob Dylan fan that I know and that's saying a lot.


The entire night was like a slow motion nightmare.  Every 15 minutes it seemed the death toll went up.  First a dozen, then 30 plus, and then more than 50.  I think by the time we went on the air with the 10 p.m. news the death toll was closing in on triple digits.  Much of what went on is a blur.  I know I was in the newsroom until 3 a.m. as we continued doing cut-in's covering the rescue effort.  It was a monumental undertaking complete with cranes needed to lift the steel and concrete off the many victims.

I was back at work at about 10 a.m. to work on a one hour special report that aired that Saturday at 6 p.m.  Our hour of coverage was top flight.  I wish I had a copy of that special.  It was one of my best producing efforts.  We later won an award for our coverage that I produced the night the results of the federal investigation into the tragedy came out.  We were live in Washington, D.C., our coverage fronted by one of my all time favorite anchors Phil Witt and the incredible Danice Kern.

Two things have bothered about the tragedy.  One was the secretive nature that surrounded the handling of the debris and the public relations efforts by Crown Center.  I'm sure it was a nightmare for those involved but they didn't do much to endear themselves to the media.

The other thing that bothers me is that we didn't go wall to wall with our coverage once the tragedy happened.  Remarkably, I don't think any of the stations did until 10 p.m.  Everyone was doing a lot of cut-in's but I don't remember seeing anyone going wall to wall.  I may be wrong, it was such a crazy night.  I can only imagine if something like this happened now we would have gone non-stop for at least 24 hours.

But 1981 was a different time and place.  How different?  I remember getting a call from CNN begging me to allow them to set up shop somewhere in the station.  No one knew anything about the upstart news network and wanted nothing to do with them.  I knew about them because I had been offered a job with CNN when it was starting up.

Anyway, our coverage of the Hyatt tragedy was an important step for WDAF.  The tragedy came at the beginning of our ascendancy to the top spot in the Kansas City news ratings.  I think our coverage that night and the days and weeks to follow of that horrific event showed that we were a serious player in the local news arena.

No comments:

Post a Comment