Students, faculty and community members gathered Tuesday night in the Student Union theatre to learn about local media coverage of the 1981 Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse.
The program served as part of the Missouri Humanity Council’s of the Pulitzer Prize’s 100-year anniversary. Guests heard from panelists Kevin Murphy, author of the commemorative book The Last Dance: The Skywalks Disaster and a City Changed; Steve Paul, reporter for The Kansas City Star at the time of the tragedy; and architect-turned-undercover-structural-investigator Wayne Lischka. These speakers chronicled how the Star and The Kansas City Times respectively earned Pulitzer Prizes for their efficient, thorough Hyatt coverage.
Panel moderator, UMKC journalism professor and current Star political columnist Steve Kraske expressed excitement over his role in the conversation.
“I was very proud of the Star to win a Pulitzer Prize and this event talked a lot about that,” Kraske said. “I just thought it would be a really good chance for students to see how a news room mobilized to cover this unbelievable tragedy.”
On July 17, 1981, the skywalks of the Hyatt Regency hotel caved during a tea dance, claiming the lives of 114 people and injuring another 216. The accident devastated Kansas City citizens, families and the overall community.
Kraske illuminated the details of the disaster, sharing that Duke Ellington’s hit “Satin Doll” boomed through the speakers as first debris fell. He added that many Star and Times reporters were dining out or at the pub when suddenly urged to go back into the office.
One of these reporters was Steve Paul, who remembers the shock well.
“It was numbness,” Paul recounted. “A a lot of us were just stunned with the enormity of the catastrophe,but it was our job to tell the story to the rest of Kansas City.”
Paul’s story and the stories of other involved journalists continue to be remembered today, a powerful testament to the news field.
“The point of this program, at least one point, was to demonstrate the importance of local journalism in any one community,” Kraske said, “and how important it is that news outlets—whether it be newspapers or TV stations—exist and thrive so they can do this important work.”