It has been 40 years since 114 people were killed and 200 others injured when two giant walkways collapsed in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City.
Images of this catastrophic structural failure – pieces of walkways flattened into gray rubble, firefighters clawing at broken concrete in search of the living or the dead, the anguish of families desperate for news – were replayed in Surfside, Florida, the last days. .
In the weeks, months, and year – or more – to come, even darker times will follow. And the answers could take years, if they come at all.
Why did the Champlain Towers South high-rise condo building suddenly collapse before dawn on June 24? Who is to blame? Will this community one day find the closure of such an enveloping tragedy? Since last week, 94 bodies have been recovered from the Surfside disaster; 22 other people were missing.
Experts examining the Florida disaster are considering several scenarios: if the oceanfront building broke near the underground parking lot, causing all 12 floors and 136 condos to collapse; or the foundation eroded by salt water from the ocean or rising tides; a roof renovation project has gone wrong; or the exploded outdoor pool. A witness heard a strange crackle. Others have spied on cracks around the site. Some felt the building shake. Others spotted a sinkhole near the pool.
A consultant in 2018 found evidence of “major structural damage” under the pool deck and “profuse” cracks in concrete beams and walls in the garage area. Subsequently, however, the community was assured by a city inspector that the Champlain Towers complex remained “in very good condition”.
A similar alert occurred at the Hyatt Regency when the lobby ceiling collapsed during construction of the hotel. The owners have learned that many of the atrium connections are weakening. They fixed the roof but missed the hall walkways, which then separated, largely due to a technical design error.
Also in the Hyatt case, seven months passed before federal investigators spotted the structural design error. In Florida, federal investigators in Washington are offering their expertise, but it will likely take longer to determine if outside factors like water or weather are involved. A number of local and state agencies will be involved in the investigation, although it is not clear which agency will lead the effort.
Separate experts are also being hired by the building owners, and families are considering lawsuits. All of this could make or delay a definitive answer on why the waterfront tower collapsed.
Already, a lawsuit for more than $ 5 million has been filed by condo residents. Yet usually in mass disaster cases, the complicated litigation – usually a class action lawsuit – ends in out-of-court settlements and no public trial. There isn’t a lot of insurance money for everyone, and the courts over the past few decades have worked to accommodate everyone fairly.
What can be all the more distressing is that trials follow legal depositions, evidence findings and preliminary hearings for years to come. And then the cases are brutally resolved with a settlement just before the start of a trial. The process can let survivors and their families slip away. Lack of a trial often means families don’t get the closure they might want.
It is rare that an individual is held personally responsible; only legal entities or construction companies recognize the fault. In the Hyatt case, two structural engineers were punished in a state regulatory case. They lost their licenses to practice engineering in Missouri. All lawsuits have been settled in state and federal courts, and approximately $ 140 million has been paid to victims.
Class actions have become the norm in mass disaster cases. No trial was held in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left 60 dead and hundreds injured. In that case, an out-of-court settlement of $ 800 million resolved the dispute. No public calculation has ever explained why a big casino player filled his hotel room with assault rifles and opened fire on an outdoor concert below.
Florida could very well end up without full answers either.
Since 1981, there has been significant progress. Engineering and architectural standards have been strengthened. Today, PTSD therapy is offered to firefighters, police and paramedics.
But this is certain: even when the cause of Surfside’s collapse is known, even after litigation is over and experts shut their briefcases, many affected people in this community will never be cured. In Kansas City, dozens of survivors, families and first responders still cry in tears at the memory of the summer of 1981.
For now, as Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett has said, with the increasing likelihood that no one else will be found alive, “We just need a few more miracles every day.”
Richard A. Serrano, former reporter for the Kansas City Times and Los Angeles Times, is the author of the upcoming book “Buried Truths and the Hyatt Skywalks: The Legacy of America’s Epic Structural Failure”.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.