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Hyatt Regency Hotel Disaster Essay, Research Paper

Case Synopsis

The Kansas City, MO Hyatt Regency Hotel was designed to be open and airy, with a lobby consisting of an open atrium that extended to the top of the building. On one side of the building were the hotel rooms, and on the other side were the meeting and conference facilities. To facilitate the transfer of guests from their rooms to the conference facilities, walkways were to be built on each floor to connect the two. To maintain the open feel of the atrium, the walkways were suspended from the ceiling without any imposing, bulky support columns to disrupt the openness. Two walkways were suspended one above the other, and were to use a common set of continuous support rods connected to the roof above.

The engineering firm, G.C.E. Inc., designed the walkways to be suspended by rods that hung from the roof structure. Each rod would pass through the upper walkway and on down to the lower walkway. Under each walkway, a nut and washer would be threaded on each of the rods to carry the load of the walkway. There was only one problem with this design. To get a nut up to the bottom of the upper walkway, the entire length of the rods would have to be threaded. Threading the entire length of the rods would have been both expensive and time consuming.

The construction firm, Havens Steel, decided to modify the design to make it easier to construct. They cut the rods in half and ran those halves from the roof to the upper walkway and placed nuts under the upper walkway to support it. They then drilled another set of holes in the upper walkway, four inches from the first set, and hung the lower hangers from the second set of holes. The second set of hangers ran down to the bottom walkway and supported it, but this minor alteration more than doubled the load on the nuts under the upper walkway, and created a moment.

Havens submitted a shop drawing of the revised hanger design to G.C.E., and it was returned with G.C.E.’s engineering stamp of approval. Havens claims that they also discussed the change over the phone, which G.C.E. denies.

During the construction, a faulty connection in the atrium roof caused part of the roof to collapse. Several investigations were conducted, and the collapse was attributed to a failed connection due to poor workmanship.

On July 17, 1981, one year after the hotel opened, two of the walkways collapsed during a huge dance party which over 1500 people attended. 114 people were killed, and over 200 were injured.

During the ensuing 24-week administrative law trial, which followed the collapse, G.C.E. was found entirely responsible for the collapse. The original design didn’t conform to the Kansas City building code, and would only have held 60% of the required load. Evidence of their lack of care during the design process and of a lack of appropriate investigation following the roof collapse was widespread. The aforementioned evidence consisted of a series of mistakes, oversights, and omissions in the detail drawings of the hangers that G.C.E. approved.

Jack Gillum and Daniel Duncan (the principals of G.C.E.) were found guilty of gross negligence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering. As a result, both lost their engineering licenses, G.C.E. was bankrupted, and expensive civil suits were settled out of court. G.C.E. also had its certificate of authority as an engineering firm revoked. However, both are currently practicing engineering in other states.

Key People/Organizations

Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation – Owner of the hotel.

G.C.E. Inc. – Engineering firm responsible for all structural engineering services for the hotel project.

Jack Gillum – President, G.C.E. Inc.

Daniel Duncan – engineer for G.C.E.

Eldridge Construction Company – General contractor for the hotel project

Havens Steel – Subcontractor to Eldridge, contracted to provide all structural steel fabrication and erection for the project.

Ethical Issues

Ethics and professionalism is the first ethical issue that comes to mind in this case. The engineers involved had a responsibility, both ethically and professionally, to make responsible, educated decisions regarding the design of the hangers for the walkways. In the course of the trial the architect, fabricator, and technician all testified that during the construction they had contacted the project engineer regarding the structural integrity of the change in the hanger design. They were all assured that the connection was sound, and the engineer, Duncan, claimed to have checked the detail when in reality he had never performed any calculations for the revised design at all. This was incredibly unprofessional; neglecting to check the safety and load capacity of a crucial hanger shows his complete disregard for the public welfare (Rubin and Banick, 1987). Yet another example of G.C.E.’s lack of professionalism was the failure of the original design to meet the load carrying requirements set forth in the building codes. Engineers should check their work redundantly to ensure that their designs are structurally sound and that they meet or exceed legal requirements.

Risk and negligence is the second ethical issue that comes to mind in this case. An engineer has a responsibility to his/her employer and most importantly to society to provide for the public welfare. The early failure of the atrium roof should have raised the engineers’ awareness, causing them to be more thorough in their oversight of Havens’ work. In the Hyatt Regency case, peoples’ lives hinged on G.C.E.’s ability to identify risks and define alternatives. Their insufficient review of the final design ultimately caused a large-scale failure and an incredible loss of life. This case is a poignant reminder that a minute judgment error, let alone gross negligence, can create a catastrophe. It is important for us to look to the past and remember such events so we, as engineers, will always fulfill our obligation to our shipmates, employers, and society.

The third ethical issue that comes to mind is social vs. legal responsibility. I think that in the aforementioned two issues, I’ve already covered the engineers’ responsibility to society, so I’ll focus here on the legal responsibility. In the Hyatt Regency case, both of the engineers involved were found guilty of multiple charges, as was their company. Both individuals lost their licenses, and the company lost its legal right to function as an engineering firm. Further, the billions of dollars in damages, which were awarded in civil suits, made a powerful statement to us as engineers. Engineers are liable, both financially and criminally, for the results of their decisions.

Case Analysis

I agree with the outcome of this case, although I’m not certain that the engineers from G.C.E. should be able to practice engineering in other states. It seems obvious that there was deliberate, willful negligence on several occasions; and that the disaster was a result of negligence as opposed to an accidental oversight. I feel that the engineers should have been banned from practicing engineering in any field in any state.

Had I been the engineer on this job, I would have been on site regularly to spot-check Havens’ work after the roof collapse. The failure of the roof, to me, justifies an on site engineer even if G.C.E. had to eat the costs incurred. Further, especially in the construction field, change orders should not be treated so casually. They frequently have significant repercussions, and should be scrutinized carefully.

I don’t know that the outcome would be any different if this case were to happen today. Only in the last few years have engineering programs at colleges and universities begun to focus on ethics. These kinds of cases hopefully will become more infrequent as the upcoming crop of engineers moves into the workplace.

Chronology of Events

Early 1976 – Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation (owner) commences project to design and build a Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.

July 1976 – Gillum-Colaco, Inc. (G.C.E. International, Inc., 1983), a Texas corporation, selected as the structural engineer for the Hyatt project.

July 1976 – summer 1977 – Hyatt project in schematic design development phase. G.C.E. assisted owner and architect (PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc.) with developing various plans for hotel project, and decided on basic design.

Late 1977- Early 1978 – Bid set of structural drawings and specifications submitted by G.C.E., using standard Kansas City, Missouri, building codes.

April 4, 1978 – Actual contract entered into by G.C.E. and the architect, PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc. G.C.E. agrees to provide “all structural engineering services for a 750-room hotel project located at 2345 McGee Street, Kansas City,


Spring 1978 – Construction on hotel begins.

August 28, 1978 – Specifications on project issued for construction based on the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) standards used by fabricators.

December 1978 – Eldridge Construction Company, general contractor on the Hyatt project, enters into subcontract with Havens Steel Company. Havens agrees to fabricate and erect the atrium steel for the Hyatt project.

January- February 1979 – Events and communications between G.C.E. and Havens determine design change from a single to a double hanger rod box beam connection for use at the fourth floor walkways. Telephone calls disputed; however, because of alleged communications between engineer and fabricator, Shop Drawing 30 and Erection Drawing E3 are changed.

February 1979 – G.C.E. receives 42 shop drawings from Havens (including Shop Drawing 30 and Erection Drawing E-3) on February 16, and returns them to Havens stamped with engineering review stamp approval February 26.

October 14, 1979 – Part of the atrium roof collapses while the hotel is under construction. Inspection team called in, whose contract dealt primarily with the investigation of the cause of the roof collapse and created no obligation to check any engineering or design work beyond the scope of their investigation and contract.

October 16, 1979 – Owner retains an independent engineering firm, Seiden-Page, to investigate the cause of the atrium roof collapse.

October 20, 1979 – Gillum (President, G.C.E. Inc.) writes owner, stating he is undertaking both an atrium collapse investigation as well as a thorough design check of all the members comprising the atrium roof.

October- November 1979 – Reports and meetings from engineer to owner/architect, assuring overall safety of the entire atrium.

July 1980 – Construction of hotel completed, and the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel opened for business.

July 17, 1981 – Connections between supporting rods from the ceiling and walkways across the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel fail, causing 2nd and 4th floor walkways to collapse, killing 114 and injuring over 200.

February 3, 1984 – Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors files complaint against Daniel M. Duncan, Jack D. Gillum and G.C.E. International Inc., charging gross negligence, incompetence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering. This action stemmed from their performance of engineering services in the design and construction of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.

November 1984 – Duncan, Gillum, and G.C.E. International, Inc. found guilty of gross negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering. Subsequently, both Duncan and Gillum lost their licenses to practice engineering in the State of Missouri, and G.C.E. had its certificate of authority as an engineering firm revoked. As a result of this catastrophe, American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) adopts report that states structural engineers have full responsibility for design projects.

Duncan and Gillum now practicing engineers in states other than Missouri.


1. Rubin, Robert and Lisa Banick (1987). “The Hyatt Regency Decision: One View.” Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, August 1987.

2. H. Petroski, “The Kansas City Tragedy: There Is Not Always Strength in Numbers,” Technology Review, August/September 1982.

3. R. Rubin, L. Banick, and C. Thornton, “The Hyatt Decision: Two Opinions.” Civil Engineering, September 1986.

4. Kim Roddis, “Structural Failures and Engineering Ethics,”Journal of Structural Engineering, May 1993.

5. Online resource, “The Ethics Center,” www.taknosys.com/ethics/cases/ec02.htm

6. Online resource, “Engineering Ethics,” www.ethics.tamu.edu/ethics/hyatt/hyatt1.htm

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