Surfside Collapse Recalls Other Tragic U.S. Building Failures

Memories of other devastating building failures have been triggered by the Florida condo collapse.

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It was a Friday evening in 1981 at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel, and the orchestra kicked off a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” for an atrium full of swing-dancing couples in gowns and tuxedos.

Above them, other guests looked on from walkways above — one two stories up, the other four stories up — suspended by steel rods and box beams. In the middle of the dance, the beams split under the weight because of a design flaw, causing the two walkways to crash to the ground.

One hundred fourteen people ended up dead — making it one of the deadliest accidental structural building failures in the country’s history. For those commemorating the 40-year mark this month, the events of recent weeks have given the anniversary a new weight.

The same year of the collapse in Kansas City, Mo., construction was completed on Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.

Other major building collapses dot recent U.S. history. In 1922, the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, D.C., collapsed during a silent film after a record-breaking storm heaped snow on the theater’s roof. It buckled under the weight, killing 98 people.

In 1981, just months before the Hyatt Regency collapse, the Harbour Cay Condominium in Cocoa Beach, Fla., east of Orlando, collapsed just as workers finished construction, killing 11.

With 60 victims found dead in the Surfside collapse, and as many as 80 still missing, it is likely to become the deadliest accidental building failure in U.S. history.

Brent Wright was 17 years old when the Hyatt skywalk collapse killed his mother and stepfather. When he heard about the news of the Florida condo collapse, he was overwhelmed by memories.

“The waiting, the hoping, the unknown, I think is the most difficult part,” Mr. Wright said.

Rescue teams ended the search for survivors in Surfside on Wednesday, acknowledging that there was no hope for survival for those still under the rubble.

Mr. Wright believes the shift from rescue to recovery, as difficult as it is for families, will give them “a starting point to trying to come to grips with the reality of the circumstances.”

But he recalled the long, painful wait for the findings of the investigation into the cause of the Hyatt collapse. It could take months for experts to conclude their assessment of the Surfside condo.

“It gnaws at you every moment of every day and you try to find something to distract your attention, but unfortunately it’s always there — it does not go away,” Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Wright and others will mark the 40th anniversary of the Kansas City collapse next weekend at a memorial erected in 2015 just east of the site of the tragedy.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County told reporters on Thursday that discussions have begun about how to commemorate victims at the site in Florida.

“We don’t want to have it be business as usual,” she said.

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