©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
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.
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.
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.
names and places are fictional and any resemblance to people living or dead is
(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.
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?
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.
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.
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,
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
"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
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.
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
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
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.
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
stop that right now," she sighed.
"Fred will be here long before I will be ready. I hate making him wait."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
man, what's happenin'," he asked as he approached the guy.
finishin' up this baby," the guy said as he reached for a fire cover for
the box beam.
does this work?" Bob asked, stepping closer to the edge of the assembly.
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?"
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
those engineer dudes have it all figured out, but I saved them a bunch of money
did? How did you do
that?" Bob may have sounded a
little skeptical, and the guy seemed to pick up on that.
I ain't dumb! Just 'cause I'm
doin' this shit, don't mean I'm dumb!"
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.
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."
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.
I see a rod coming from the ceiling, and then another one going down to the
second floor walkway," Bob said.
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."
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.'"
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."
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?"
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.
that's great! They used your
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!"
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?"
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.
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
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.
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
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."
what you here for?" John asked Bob.
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."
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.
you too!" Bob shot back.
"Maybe someday you will get a little recognition for your
ideas. Until then, keep the faith
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
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