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SKYFALL

©1989 Brian G. Angevine

 

This is a fictionalized version of a real event in Kansas City. A new hotel opened after many delays and engineering changes. The soaring lobby featured three suspended walkways connecting the second, third and fourth floors across the atrium. During a dance those walkways collapsed killing many people.

            I was curious about the event and began to do research shortly after it happened. At that time it was difficult to find details so I made up many of the incidences. Twenty years after the tragedy the Kansas City Star published pictures and a story that matched many of the things I had imagined.

            People have told me the world is not ready to read another tragedy about a building collapse after 9/11. That is probably true, but this event is still studied in schools of engineering because it was easily preventable. Students do the math and see that the structure could not stand the way it was changed impulsively by one of the engineers.

            There are lessons to be learned from this event and the story is fascinating in fiction. To me one of the worst tragedies is that nobody went to jail and the survivors were paid off to keep their mouths shut.

            The names and places are fictional and any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.

 

Chapter 1

(July 17, 1981)

     Franklin Genz thought it was a masterpiece, the most beautiful lobby he had ever seen.  He stood in the middle of the vast expanse of the hotel lobby looking up at the walkways seemingly suspended on air.  There were three of them connecting the twin, forty story towers, and he felt they added the masterstroke to the massive hotel design.  This was not Genz's first hotel work, but it certainly was the most meaningful to him.

     Most hotels these days were designed by a plethora of architects.  They became kind of a corporate structure in which no one person had any great claim to creative dominance, but Genz had argued, successfully, for the inclusion of the airy walkways.  The original plans called for balcony walkways clinging to the cliff-like walls, similar to the hotel just caddy-corner across the street, and many others already in existence and being built.  While that design certainly gave an impressive feel to soaring lobbies, Genz's idea of suspending the walkways across the wide expanse gave an air of drama to the place.

     Genz was only slightly frustrated that the committee format had altered his original idea significantly.  His first drawings included sweeping curves suspended by nearly invisible cables from the ceiling beams above the fourth floor.  The asymmetrical conception would have set off the harsh angles of the rest of the construction in a vivid way.  The main protest by the committee was fear that swaying would result from foot traffic.  Secretly, Franklin wanted to transport the mundane, weary traveller into the empyrean plane of aesthetics.  What better way to do that than to make him feel the insecurity of the earth moving beneath his feet?  That would make the tired, travel-worn businessperson sit up and take notice, Franklin thought to himself again.

     The bumbling committee had finally settled on straight walkways suspended by a box beam and rod system.  There would still be some movement, but not nearly so much as in the cable suspension.  In addition, the straight paths did little to break up the monotony of angles in the structure.  Franklin wondered what the heck was wrong with the average person who refused to accept a mix of geometric and organic shapes.  Most people laid out all their landscaping and decks in strict geometric shapes, but at least Franklin Genz had won his point and retained the suspended walkways.  It was the only item he could point to as his personal touch on the project.

            Creativity was vitally important to Genz.  That was the main reason he went into architecture, to have an opportunity to be creative and make an impact on the community through that creativity.  Many cities and even entire cultures are defined by the uniqueness of their architecture.  Genz didn't voice a desire to have that kind of influence, but the drive was certainly there in his mind all the time.  Just think--to have your name associated with Frank Lloyd Wright's cantilever ideas which changed the look of buildings for a generation, or maybe Buckminster Fuller with his underutilized geodesic dome that has so many possibilities, so many yet unrealized.  Le Corbusier introduced organic shapes that hadn't been used before in any effective way.  In fact it was ideas of Le Corbusier that influenced Genz' first design with the curving walkways.  He thought it was too bad that no one had the guts to try the asymmetrical idea.  Everyone seemed so tied to geometric shapes.  Sure, they are easier to build if everything is square cornered, but someone has to try new things.  Why not on this brand new hotel?

            For Franklin Genz, creativity had four components: fluency, flexibility, enhancement and originality.  Most people think of creativity as only being something original and "way out there," which is why so many people think they aren't creative.  How can you come up with something original all the time?  The greatest architects in history even copied each other in certain ways.  Perhaps they looked at someone's idea and said, "It would be even better if you moved this little piece here."  That is creativity.  The original thing is not yours, but the enhancement is.

            As Genz gazed around the room he had that feeling of satisfaction he always got when one of his ideas was put into concrete form.  This felt like his lobby, his hotel.  The mark of Franklin Genz was all over the place, but, he thought, "The most important part are the suspended walkways--they are what set this hotel apart from the cookie-cutter hotels all across the country."  Someday people would point to this lobby and these walkways as important breakthroughs in architectural design, and Franklin Genz was the designer, the driving force behind change.  So went the little voice in his head--his self-esteem run amok. 

            Frank thought about that little ego trip.  "Is it so bad to have a little rush of self-satisfaction when you are a part of something this big?" he said to himself.  "Franklin Genz, the great architect," rolled around in his mind.  "Maybe I'll win an award for this.  That would boost my career a whole bunch.  I might have to hire a bunch of secretaries to handle all the calls that will be rolling in when people get an eyeful of this place."  Consciously, Genz doffed his hard-hat to himself.  To observers it might have looked as if he were adjusting it a little bit, but the gesture was really a salute to the famous architect who designed this lobby!

     George Casebo, the General Contractor, and Wally Joytner, Structural Engineer, talked quietly, almost in awe, as they stood next to Genz.  In essence, these three had pushed most of the project through to completion.  They admired their efforts as workers scurried around loading the last pieces of equipment into carts and rolling them away.  A small army of people was busy polishing railings, washing glass surfaces and vacuuming carpets.  The grand opening was to be tonight with a large crowd of city dignitaries and celebrators on hand.

     Joytner's personal secretary approached with a serving cart containing a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket with three stemmed glasses alongside.

     "Frank, I'll let you do the honors," Casebo said as he handed the magnum bottle to Genz.  "I guess you wimpy architects have the strength to open a bottle of champagne, don't you?"

     Genz grinned good-naturedly at the ribbing.  He and Casebo had been at each other's throats all during the long construction phase, many times not in jest.  Maybe this was George's way of patching up the feud and letting the tension go.

     "Well, George, I guess you don't remember that little arm wrestling match we had when you decided to substitute the hanger rod assembly on the walkways, do you?  If Wally wouldn't have backed you up on that one, I would have taken you to the cleaners."  Frank's voice carried mock severity, but he was still a little worried about the walkway assembly Joytner and Casebo had foisted off on him.

     "Now, now, Frank.  You're not going off on that again are you?" Wally Joytner put in placatingly.  "The new assembly is just as strong, and a whole lot cheaper and easier to assemble than the original.  Besides that, it would have held up construction another month to get hanger rods that long shipped up here."

     "I know! I know!  We've been through all that before.  I just wanted to make sure you guys knew what you were talking about."

     Genz had been working at the cork all that time and it finally yielded with a loud pop.  The sound brought the attention of every worker in the room as it echoed through the vast confines of the steel and glass atrium.  The three men laughed while Genz poured generous measures of the bubbly into the glasses.

     "Well, gentlemen, here's to our baby," Joytner said as he lifted his glass high.

     "May she fly forever," Genz added metaphorically as he glanced again at the walkways.

     "May a million businessmen bed their favorite wife or mistress in these confines," Casebo added with characteristic crudity as their glasses clinked together.

     All three tossed the drinks back with alacrity while the secretary, standing discreetly in the background, filled the glasses again.  This time, they sipped the fizzy more slowly as they strolled around the lobby again in a last-minute check of details.

     "Well, gentlemen.  I trust I will see you again this evening.  Remember, white tie and tails for all," Joytner said. 

     "That is, if Casebo can get the grease from under his fingernails and act civilized long enough to not get arrested," Genz chided in a parting shot.  He strode rapidly from the room before George could fire back at him.

*****

            Sally Straithwite felt hurried.  She had rushed home from work late, after her stupid boss had insisted on getting one more project finished and in the mail.  Of course, he had left at noon to go to a "luncheon," which she knew meant he was playing golf.  He never seemed to care that his playing always caused her to work harder to get things done, but this was typical for him on a Friday afternoon in July. 

            Sally had been looking forward to July 17, 1981, for months. She had high hopes that this was to be the night of her engagement.  She and Fred Strong had been dating for almost two years now, and their romance had progressed to a point of no return.  She was kind of impatient with Fred for waiting so long for a proposal, but she could also understand part of his hesitation.  He was just now getting established in his career as an emergency medical technician and really had not had time to think much about marriage.  In fact he had been too busy lately to even see much of Sally. 

            Sally was excited about their long-standing date to the "tea dance" at the new hotel.  A local radio station was hosting a dance contest in the atrium--it had been dubbed "The Airwalk in the Atrium."   A local band that had gained much recent fame would provide the music and there would be plenty of goodies and celebrities galore.

            As she tried to relax in the shower for a few minutes, Sally idly soaped her trim, young body.  Fred always remarked about how firm and well-built she was.  Pleased that she still excited him after almost two years, she gave a little shiver of pleasure as her fingers passed over certain sensitive areas of her body.

            "Gotta stop that right now," she sighed.  "Fred will be here long before I will be ready.  I hate making him wait."

            She slid the shower door aside and wrapped in the large, luxuriant towel she loved so much.  It felt so fine caressing her skin which fairly glowed with the touch.

*****

            John Case checked the torque one last time on the nuts that held up the third floor skywalk.  Satisfied, he snapped the fireproof cover over the end of the box beam and climbed down from the aluminum apparatus that had been designed to change the light bulbs in the ceiling of the atrium.  It was kind of dizzying to be up four floors above the lobby, but he had been higher during the construction.  In fact, he had barely escaped serious injury when a part of the atrium roof collapsed two years ago during construction.  That had caused quite a stir and much condemnation over whose fault it was.  Eventually, it was decided that the fastener design was not the best, along with some corrosion of material in the steel, and a little bit of shoddy workmanship.

            After that incident, another engineering firm was brought in to check the design of the atrium.  Everything had been okayed and construction had gone on.  There was the little factor of the skywalks still though.  The design had been changed during construction.  John, himself, had pointed out that the original design would be difficult to construct and probably more costly.  He was pleased that his supervisor had actually listened to him for a change.  They had come up with a plan to connect the fourth floor skywalk with a long rod to the ceiling of the atrium with heavy nuts threaded onto the rod through holes in the steel channel members.  Then it was easy to drill more holes near the end of the channel members to attach rods to hold up the second floor skywalk.  The third floor skywalk was parallel to the others, but was offset by 10 feet so that it was a separate entity.

            As a final check, John spread the skywalk assembly drawings on the fourth floor deck.  Shop Drawing 30 and Erection Drawing E-3 had originally called for one piece rods extending all the way from the atrium ceiling through the construction beams for both the fourth and second floor skywalks.  Large nuts with supporting washers would have been threaded onto the rods and twisted all the way up to the fourth floor deck, and then to the second floor deck when it was installed.  That would have been tedious and wasteful to thread the rods for their entire length.  Besides, with two rods, it should be much stronger.

            John Case gazed out across the expanse of the three skywalks with pride.  The effect was marvelous with no supporting columns anyplace in the beautiful atrium.  Even the staircase with its half turn in the middle was unsupported by columns.  The lobby was beautiful and very impressive.

*****

            Fred Strong had finished his Emergency Medical Technician training two months ago.  He now was serving regularly on a team based in a fairly quiet neighborhood near a large high school.  The EMT headquarters were in a modified house across the street, while the ambulance and other emergency equipment was in a garage that fit in fairly well with the housing in the neighborhood.  It was a rather unobtrusive site and Fred enjoyed being stationed there.  Besides that, he occasionally went to the nearby high school to give lectures and demonstrations to the Health Careers class.  He kind of enjoyed working with the young kids because it reminded him so much of his recent youth.  He had always had much curiosity about the human body and how systems worked.  Now he felt important in the grander scheme of life because he could help save lives. 

            Fred hoped to be a full-fledged physician someday, but his family was not rich and Fred had to support all his education himself.  That was why he had decided to go the EMT route for now.  It would give him good training and practice, while earning some much needed money.  Maybe in a few years he could afford to start his medical degree, but for now he plunged himself wholeheartedly into his assignments and did the best job he could.

            Strong had this Friday off because of his shift assignments.  He and the other EMT's worked 48 hour shifts, sleeping, eating and living together in the headquarters house.  This helped promote team unity and provided many opportunities for the team to practice procedures together.  It also gave continuous coverage for emergency responses.  Sometimes, especially on weekends, the shifts were long and tiring.  People seemed to have a death wish on weekends--there always seemed to be more accidents and problems to deal with, but Fred's busy time was last weekend, so he got this weekend off.

            Strong had spent the day making sure he had all the details worked out for the BIG NIGHT tonight.  He had the diamond ring that had taken him so long to pay for.  It had been difficult as a student and beginning worker to come up with the money, but Sally was worth the trouble.  He felt closer to her than any other girl he had ever dated.  He hadn't really dated that many, but Sally definitely suited him, intellectually, philosophically, and sexually.  She was bright, committed and beautiful beyond his wildest dreams. 

            Fred had always been kind of an introvert, but was good looking and hard working.  Kindness and caring were his hallmarks, and he had finally found a girl in Sally who was willing to stay with him and give him enough attention to find out what kind of person he really was.  Fred appreciated that and felt very lucky indeed to have found such a great combination.

            Fred left the flower shop with a dozen red roses, found a beautiful card in the shop, and wrapped the ring in beautiful, gold foil paper.  He enjoyed wrapping presents and made a frilly bow out of silver ribbon, split and curled to perfection.  Most guys would have just pulled the ring box out of their pocket and offered it to the girl, but not Fred.  He wanted every detail of this night to be perfect and memorable.

 

Chapter 2

            The new hotel was grand and dominated the area that was sparsely populated with office buildings.  There were many more buildings to be built in this area just off the downtown district, but they were mostly still in the planning stages.  A major hotel and shopping center, unique in its design, all housed in one large building, was caddy-corner across the street.  This Center was built by a world-class greeting card firm that occupied several city blocks just to the south of the new hotel and across from the Center.  One of the unique features of the Center, built in 1973, was a four story atrium with tropical plants and a cliff of natural rock that the building had been built around.  A waterfall cascaded down this cliff lending an almost surrealistic air to the place--especially so close here to the geographical center of the United States.

            West of the new hotel was one of the grand old dames of the railroad world--Union Station.  Its design was a masterpiece at the time and still was very imposing.  Unfortunately, with the advent of air travel and lack of commitment to the railroad industry, the station had been unused for 20 years and was falling into complete disrepair.  Many people were talking about fixing the old gal up, but no real money had been raised yet and there seemed to be little hope that Union Station would ever be open again.  A favorite story about Union Station involved the gun battle between Eliot Ness and a famous gangster's accountant.  Many people claimed there were still bullet holes in the marble walls near the staircase where Ness' plan fell apart.  It was amazing how this city had so much history!

            Union Station was a wonderful example of great architecture and careful construction techniques.  The vast, high-ceilinged waiting rooms made travelers feel small and insignificant, yet a part of something unique and grand.  So many newer buildings were uninspiring and not designed to last a century or more like Union Station.  For people who had spent time in countries that had existed much longer than the paltry two hundred years of United States history, the design and construction of American buildings must seem unimportant.  When one is around buildings that have stood for 400 or more years, and still served as monuments to great architects and cultures, the 30 year life span of most American structures seems a crime.

*****

It must have taken a genius to figure out that a couple of little bitty rods through beams could support the weight of not one, but two walkways across this lobby.  From this distance, the rods could barely be seen.  That gave the impression that the walkways were floating above the floor below balanced on a wish and a prayer.

            Bob was curious now.  He walked up the curving staircase to get a better look at the walkways.  As he got closer, he saw a workman checking the bolts on the walkways. 

            "Hey man, what's happenin'," he asked as he approached the guy.

            "Just finishin' up this baby," the guy said as he reached for a fire cover for the box beam.

            "How does this work?" Bob asked, stepping closer to the edge of the assembly.

            "This rod goes through a hole in the box beam, a washer slides up against the bottom of the beam, and then this big nut is threaded onto that.  Looks easy, don't it?"

            "Yeah," Bob pondered the arrangement, then followed the rod up its length with his eyes until he saw the attachment in the ceiling.  "How in Hell do they know this will hold all this weight up?"

            "Oh, those engineer dudes have it all figured out, but I saved them a bunch of money and time!"

            "You did?  How did you do that?"  Bob may have sounded a little skeptical, and the guy seemed to pick up on that.

            "Hey, I ain't dumb!  Just 'cause I'm doin' this shit, don't mean I'm dumb!"

            "Hold it.  I didn't mean that!  I'm just curious.  I'm like you, got a dumb-ass job, but I've got some brains in my head too.  The big bosses just don't like to hear my suggestions," Bob said.

            The guy looked up at Bob and heard the sound of frustration in his voice.  "Yeah, I hear yah.  Well, this is one time they listened to me.  The original design called for one long rod all the way from the ceiling, down through a hole in the fourth floor box beam, then on to the second floor walkway."

            "Here, look at this design."  He spread the drawings out on the floor and pointed to the detail of the box beam on the fourth and second floor walkways.  "See, here, the old drawing had this long rod going through one hole.  Sheezez, the rod had to go all the way from the ceiling to the bottom of that walkway!  And the whole damn thing had to be threaded!  Can you imagine twisting one of these nuts all the way up that rod just to get to the bottom of the fourth floor?"  He gestured upward with his arm as Bob's eyes shifted from the nearly incomprehensible drawing to the reality suspended above him.

            "Well, I see a rod coming from the ceiling, and then another one going down to the second floor walkway," Bob said.

            "Yeah, that's what I'm tellin' ya," John Case answered.  "I heard my boss bitchin' about that and wondering where and when we would get the damn rods.  Geez, the hotel had been under construction four years already!  We was runnin' out of time and money.  Ya know, they attach all kinds of penalties these days for not finishin' on time."

            "Anyways, I heard these guys talkin' and waited until I could get my boss to listen to me.  I walks up to him and says; 'Y'know, if we drilled two holes in those fourth floor beams we could attach another shorter rod to hold up the second floor walkway.  Then the whole thing wouldn't have to be threaded, it would go a lot faster and be cheaper.  Probably stronger too!  Two rods have gotta be stronger than one measly little thing.'"

            "Well, at first the guy started to just walk away, and was I pissed!  But then I could see him kinda stop and think for a minute.  Then he looked up at the ceiling and thought some more.  I just stood there and watched as the idea finally dawned on him.  It was just like in the cartoons.  I swear I could see a light bulb come on over his head."

            "Well, he didn't say nothin' to me.  He just kinda glanced over his shoulder at me with a kinda half smile.  Then he just walked off.  I wasn't sure what was gonna happen, but at least I got my two cents worth in.  Ya know what I mean?"

            Bob looked closely at the assembly and could see that there were indeed two rods attached to the fourth floor box beams.  One went from the ceiling to the beam, while the second was offset a few inches and went on down to the second floor beams.

            "Hey, that's great!  They used your idea!"

            "Well, it's more like they stole it!  Nobody ever said a word to me, but a few days later, we got these shorter rods in and some new drawings.  It was just like I said it should be.  The bastards never did me any favors though.  But at least I know that I helped them out--too bad they don't return the favor and help me out!"

            "I figure it saved them big bucks and I hoped they would pass a little reward my way.  But, NO!  No way are they gonna help us little guys.  But us little guys have our ways of makin' them pay a little too.  You heard about that chunk of roof that fell a while back?"

            "Yeah, I heard about that.  It makes you wonder just how much these smart-ass engineers really know.  I mean, how could you let a chunk of roof fall off?" Bob asked incredulously.

            "Well, I was right under that piece of shit when it fell.  Lucky I got good reflexes.  I jumped outta the way in time--it just sprayed me with broken glass.  I got a few days off and a pot load of worker's comp money for that!"  John leaned nearer Bob and whispered conspiratorially, "We cut some corners on that attachment.  Some guy musta cut a little too much, 'cause that one panel fell."  John pointed up at the offending panel.

            "No one ever found out who did that shitty work.  I think one of the guys was pocketing some of the construction materials and selling it to some fence.  He probably put about half the bolts and nuts in that were supposed to be up there.  That happens all the time, but a lot of the times it is the contractor telling us to cut corners."  John stood up and stretched his back.  He looked pensively around the lobby, admiring the view.

            Bob was surprised.  "You guys really take stuff from the site?"

            "Sure.  I worked on a housing project once.  They would put rebar in for a driveway just like the code called for.  The city inspector would come around and approve it, then we would take out half the rebar in each driveway and pour the concrete.  We had enough rebar to do the next house."

            "Isn't that dangerous?" Bob asked.

            "Naw.  It's not like they're going to drive a semi on their own driveways.  These building codes are full of shit.  They just wanta make work for people and they go way overboard.  Yeah, we cut stuff all the time after the inspectors have looked at it.  It don't hurt nobody."

            "So what you here for?" John asked Bob.

            "Oh, I'm the video guy.  I'm just a little guy like you that everybody shits on.  But there are times I get a few perks too.  Like tonight.  I have to wear a tux, but I don't have to pay for the food and drinks I can sneak.  This should be a good night!  Just look at all the goodies they are starting to bring out.  Oh, and there are some perks in the tape too.  If I catch a little nipple slip or some guy pawing some other guy's wife, things can get interesting.  You would be surprised what shows up on these tapes!  If I were just a little dishonest, I could blackmail some of these big shots for a bunch of money.  But, mainly we just look at the goofballs and their babes and have a good laugh."

            "Well, I gotta finish up and get outta here.  You have a good one tonight!"  John said as he rolled up the drawings and picked up his tools.

            "Thanks, you too!" Bob shot back.  "Maybe someday you will get a little recognition for your ideas.  Until then, keep the faith baby!"

            John took one last look at the hanger rod assembly and its connection to the box beam.  As he shone his flashlight down the length of the beam inside the walkway, it looked like the beam was bent a little.  He checked closer, and sure enough, it was bending.  "Oh well," he thought.  "It's probably like when you're on a bridge during rush hour.  If you have to stop for a light you can really feel that bridge sway with all the traffic on it.  This

 

THESE ARE THE FIRST 5,000 WORDS OF THIS TRUE/FICTIONALIZED STORY. READ THE REST AT AMAZON.COM FOR THE KINDLE