October 26, 2014

Pulitzer winner recalls Hyatt skywalk collapse

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Bettie Turner , poses on her porch. The Gardner woman earned a share of the Pulitzer Prize for her assistance in covering the Hyatt Skywalk collapse in 1981. File photo

Mica Marriott
Special to The Gardner News
The Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City had its grand opening on July 1, 1980.
No one could have predicted that just more than a year later the hotel’s luxurious lobby would be the scene of the deadliest structural collapse in American history at the time.
Gardner resident, Bettie Turner, was employed by the Kansas City Star and was a staff member of the Star’s Johnson County Bureau office that night.
As a staff writer for the newspaper she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize medal which she keeps in her living room.
Humbly she said, “I think it’s maybe the only prize ever awarded to someone for helping write obituaries.”
On Friday evening, July 17, 1981, the Hyatt Regency hosted a Tea Dance as it had done several Friday nights prior.
Approximately 1,600 people attended the dance on this particular evening.
Spectators gathered on three open concrete walkways above the lobby.
The second story walkway was directly below the highest fourth floor walkway, and the third floor walkway was staggered beside the two others.
Approximately 56 spectators were standing on the second level walkway, about six or seven were on the forth, and more than 100 people had gathered below on the ground level.
An orchestra of brass instruments played big band music and dancers were trotting along on the ground level.
At 7:05 p.m., the fourth floor walkway gave way and fell directly onto the second floor walkway and the two skywalks crashed onto the lower level beneath, killing more than 100 people.
Turner was headed home from a shift at the Star’s Johnson County bureau when she learned of the collapse. She turned around and went back to the office to assist in covering the event.
The youngest victim and casualty was 11-year-old Pam Coffey of Leavenworth. Her father brought her to the dance to spend some quality time with her after he and her mother had recently divorced.
Her father, Gerald Coffey also perished that evening in the disaster.
In a recent interview with the Kansas City Star, Vince Ortega, the first police officer on the scene, remembered, “It was chaotic, people were screaming, crying, grabbing me, saying we need help over here, pulling me in different directions.”
A broken water main filled the lower level with water and threatened to drown trapped survivors.
Many bodies had been crushed beyond recognition.
Ortega recalled that one man’s leg was amputated by a chainsaw to free him from the rubble. Ortega witnessed another police officer pulling a screaming man out from the wreckage and the man’s arm came off in the process.
The entire rescue operation lasted 14 hours with about 34 fire trucks and EMS units and numerous doctors from five surrounding hospitals on the scene.
The newspaper coverage would last many more days and hours as reporters, including Turner, wrote about the victims and the cause of the destruction.
Local construction crews were called in with heavy equipment, including concrete saws, jackhammers, and cranes.
The former chief of Kansas City’s emergency medical system, Dr. Joseph Waeckerle, managed the medical and rescue efforts by establishing a makeshift morgue in a ground floor exhibition area and using the hotel’s taxicab driveway as a triage area.
The number of severely injured was so great, those who could not be saved were given morphine to ease their pain until their deaths.
The disaster resulted in 114 deaths and 216 injuries.
Many people struggled to come to terms with why the tragedy happened.
The Kansas City Star hired a structural engineer, Wayne Lischka only three days after the disaster to investigate the cause.
Lischka’s findings were astonishing.
The walkways were approximately 120 feet in length.
It was discovered that two separate sets of tie rods were used with one set connecting the fourth floor walkway to the ceiling, and the other connecting the second floor walkway to the fourth floor walkway.
In the original design, the beams for the fourth floor walkway had to support only the weight of the fourth floor walkway, and the weight of the second floor walkway was supported completely by the rods.
During construction the design was altered in a way that required the fourth floor beams to support both the fourth floor walkway and the second floor walkway directly below.
This doubled the load of the fourth floor beams, leading to a magnificent structural disaster.
In conclusion, the engineers employed by Jack D. Gillum and Associates who had viewed and approved the final drawings were convicted by the Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors of gross negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering.
They all subsequently lost their engineering licenses in the states of Missouri and Texas. The company of Jack D. Gillum and Associates was discharged of criminal negligence, but lost its license to practice engineering.
Approximately $140 million was awarded to victims and their families in settlements from civil lawsuits.
The majority of the settlement was paid by the Crown Center Corporation, a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards. Hallmark Cards was the owner of the hotel’s property.
Many hoteliers, like Hyatt, operate hotels as a management company, and does not normally own the hotel real estate.
The Kansas City Star’s involvement in the investigative discovery of the significant change from the original design of the walkways and reporting the incident and outcome to the public earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
For her assistance on the many stories, Turner received an award.
Bettie (Waddell) Turner was born July 25, 1921 at her maternal grandparent’s home in Gardner to Ray and Pauline Waddell of Wellsville.
Her father was a procurement manager for a dairy company, and the family moved throughout Kansas and Oklahoma when she was a child. Bettie graduated from Ottawa High School in 1939.
Her best friend at the time was Mabel Lister.
“Mabel and I went to picnics and organized birthday parties, and pretty much looked for every excuse to be around boys,” she chuckled.
Soon after high school Bettie began her college education with one year at Ottawa University, then finished her degree Kansas State Teacher’s College in Emporia.
She returned to Gardner in 1942 at the age of 21.
Turner’s maternal grandparents, Arthur and Hattie Patterson, ran a feed store in Gardner, and told her about an open teaching position at the Gardner Grade School.
Bettie Turner successfully applied for the job and moved in with her grandparents of Gardner, renting a room for $20 a month.
Her salary for being the first and second grade teacher at Gardner Grade School was $85 a month.
Bettie experienced the impact of World War II during her 20s.
She was still at college when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and she recalls hearing the news on the sidewalk outside her dorm.
Later in Gardner, she witnessed the town’s population “boom” when the Naval Air Station was built just east of Gardner.
During this time, Bettie attended several USO dances held at the city auditorium.
That is where she met her husband Marvin Turner.
Marvin and Bettie were married in 1944.
One of her favorite automobiles that she and Marvin owned was a 1939 Chevy Coupe which they drove to Noel, Mo. for their honeymoon.
“I remember we had to save up ration coupons for gasoline, so we could get enough fuel for the trip,” she remembers.
The Turners adopted three children whom were siblings — Jim, Paula, and Tom.
In 1960, Bettie became a librarian for the Gardner Library. She had previous experience as a librarian for her college library while studying to become a teacher.
On July 20, 1969, she watched American astronauts land on the moon, and recalls, “It was really impressive.”
In the 1970s Bettie started working in the Gardner office of the Shawnee Journal Herald. Soon after, she began her second round of college and attended classes at Johnson County Community College to study journalism, advertising, copywriting, and creative writing.
She went on to work as a reporter for The Gardner News and the Johnson County Bureau for the Kansas City Star.
Around the time of the Hyatt disaster, Turner covered a train wreck at the Clare Road and U.S. 56 Highway crossing, which made front page of the Star.
When helping to write obituaries from the Hyatt disaster, Turner recalls “When I called family members of the deceased, they were so patient with me and didn’t seem bothered by my questions when I knew it was such a sad a stressful time for them.”
Bettie celebrated her 90th birthday in 2011.
Standing only a little more than 5 feet tall, Bettie has humbly endured and witnessed many historic moments within the last 90 years.
“I’m very fortunate,” she said.  “I still live alone, drive my car, shop, do errands, and visit friends.”
Turner finds all the technology advancements throughout her lifetime remarkable.
“I like to learn how to use all the new computers and cell phones, but it sure is confusing,” she said.
Her favorite television program is “Dancing with the Stars,” but she enjoys reading most of the time.
Turner hasn’t put down her writer’s pen yet.  She still writes articles for “The Best Times” publication, for which she previously was a board member.
Turner says old age is a challenge and “you have face it with humor, kindness, courage, honesty, and tolerance.”
“I must admit that I don’t do my chores as quickly, or as nimbly, as I  used  to, but given a bit more time and courtesy of being treated as if I have some common sense, I can do it myself!” She said. “I have to recognize limitations and graciously allow them, and enjoy what I can do. I  have to let the younger people lead the way and smile encouragingly.”
Reflecting on the past 90 years she says, “In spite of everything, whether you’re focused on your career or what you do with yourself in life, family is really the best thing to have.
“Lots of people turn 90. I’m not special and I don’t know the secret to living this long. I have to give the credit to God. He put me here, and I’m still going!”
This story first appeared in the a 2011 edition of The Gardner News.

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