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In 1981, two suspended walkways of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri

collapsed, resulting in 114 deaths and over 200 injuries. Structural analysis after the

accident showed that the main cause of the collapse was a modification made to the

walkway support rods during construction. This paper uses duty ethics to uncover the

immoral actions taken by those involved in the construction of the hotel. From this, it is

clear that the major errors in ethical conduct were that (i) those responsible for

administrative oversight of the walkway did not actually verify the work of those under

them, and (ii) those who designed the walkway did not feel responsible for ensuring its

safety. These issues could have been avoided and can be used as an example for similar

cases in the future. To solve these problems, the building owner can hire an independent

group of engineers to verify the safety of the structure at critical stages of development.

Further, engineers must be informed that they are responsible for the safety of their

designs, and engineers that do not take responsibility should be met with strict

punishment. This report is intended for civil engineering students as an analysis of the

ethical responsibilities of engineers and the consequences of unethical action.

In a metropolitan area it is common for hundreds, if not thousands, of people to

walk across man-made connecting structures, such as walkways or suspension bridges,

each day.  When a suspended walkway collapses, it is a public priority to discover the cause

so that such catastrophes can be avoided in the future.  In 1981, two suspension walkways

at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, Missouri failed.  The second and fourth floor walkways

fell to the atrium floor, killing 114 people and injuring over 200.  Numerous factors

motivated by unethical decision-making led to this devastating event.  These motivations

will be analyzed using duty ethics.  They will reveal how unethical decisions led to the

failure and what the proper course of action could have been.

In 1976, Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation started a project for the

planning and construction of a Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri. The plans for

the building were done by G.C.E. International, Inc., a professional consulting firm of

structural engineers, and PBNDML Architects, Planners, Inc. They completed the plans for

the building in 1978 at which point G.C.E and PBNDML officially entered a standard

contract with Crown to begin construction. In December of 1978, the general contractor

for the project, Eldridge Construction Company, subcontracted with Havens Steel Company.

Havens was hired to make and assemble all of the steel parts used in the atrium, including those that support the suspended walkway. In February 1979, Havens made a modification

to the original design of the walkway support rods that eventually led to the catastrophe.

There were three walkways suspended above the atrium on the second, third, and

fourth floors. The second and fourth floor walkways were placed one directly above the

other. The third floor walkway was placed next to these two walkways and was not

involved in the incident. On the evening of July 17th, 1981, one year after the hotel's grand

opening, a crowd had gathered to attend a tea dance taking place in the atrium. People had

filled the suspended walkways to get a better view. There were likely around 50-60 people

in total standing on the second and fourth floor walkways when they suddenly collapsed to

the atrium floor (NBS, 1982). 114 people were killed and over 200 injured, making it the

most devastating structural failure in US history with the exception of the collapse of the

World Trade Center (Baura, 2006).

After the collapse, the Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and

Land Surveyors filed a complaint against the project's two structural engineers from G.C.E.,

Daniel M. Duncan and Jack D. Gillum, as well as the engineering firm itself. They were

found guilty of gross negligence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct. Both engineers

lost their licenses to practice engineering in the state of Missouri, and G.C.E. lost its

certificate of authority as an engineering firm (Baura, 2006). As previously mentioned, the

primary cause of the failure was due to the modification made during construction by

Havens Steel Company, but even the original plans made by G.C.E. engineers were in

violation of regulations.

Duncan, G.C.E.'s main structural engineer on the project, made the original design

plans for the suspended walkways. In the original plans, long steel rods came down from the ceiling and attached to both the second and fourth floor walkways using washer and

nut connections (Baura, 2006). By Kansas City Building Code, the ultimate capacity of each

connection should have been 1.67 times the design load placed on each connection. The

design load is the dead load (weight of the walkway itself) plus estimated live load (weight

due to foot traffic on the walkway). The connections, as Duncan designed them, would

roughly as much as the dead load of the walkways, 60% of that required by the building

code (NBS, 1982). Investigators found no final calculations for the loads associated with

each connection in the project folder where calculations were kept. Gillum, Duncan's

supervisor at G.C.E., gave his stamp of approval on the design drawings, which were then

sent to Havens (Baura, 2006).

Havens had trouble finding steel rods of the appropriate length for Duncan's original

design, so they made a modification. Havens split the long rods into two shorter rods

connected by the fourth floor support beam, see Figure 1. Havens' modification did not

involve strengthening the washer and nut connections (NBS, 1982). The important

difference is that the washer and nut connections that are underneath the left beam in

Figure 1, now must support the full weight of both walkways. This doubles the design load

required by the building code, but without strengthening these connections from the

original design, they had 30% the required capacity. Havens sent the modified plans to

Duncan, and Duncan gave his stamp of approval. When the architect helping with the

designs for the project expressed concern for the integrity of the new design plans, Duncan

assured him that the modification did not compromise structural integrity. Although

Duncan claimed that he made calculations to verify this, once again, no such calculations

were found in the project file (Baura, 2006). There were problems during construction that could have helped Duncan and Gillum catch this fatal error, but they did not take

advantage of the opportunity.

During the late stages of construction, part of the atrium roof collapsed. The owner

hired an independent team of engineers, Seiden-Page, to investigate the cause of the

collapse. The team stayed within the realm of its investigation and did not inspect any

other part of the atrium for design error. Concerned by the collapse, the owner contacted

G.C.E. requesting that all steel connections in the atrium be checked for design error.

Gillum instead had only the steel connections on the atrium roof examined (Baura, 2006).

Now that the stage is set, an ethical framework will explain the points of ethical lapse in the

construction of the Hyatt.

There are many ethical frameworks that can be used to analyze an event such as this

where it is likely that unethical actions took place. One such framework is duty ethics. Duty ethics pivots on two principles established by Emanuel Kant, the Universality

Principle and the Reciprocity Principle. The Universality Principle states that one should

only "act on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a

universal law" (van de Poel, 2011). In other words, if willing a law to be universally

accepted does not produce a contradiction, then it is a valid and ethical law. The

Reciprocity Principle says to "act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in

any other, in every case an end, never as a means only" (van de Poel, 2011). These two

principles will reveal how the actions taken by the individuals involved in the construction

of the suspended walkways of the Hyatt Regency Hotel were made on unethical grounds.

Havens, Gillum, and Crown (the owner) all failed in terms of the Reciprocity

Principle. Gillum was a well-established engineer at the time of the construction of the

Hyatt Regency Hotel. He had 10 associate engineers working under him each overseeing

six or more projects at a time (Pfatteicher, 2000). Gillum, unable to oversee all projects

personally, elected to rely completely on the integrity of his associate engineers (one of

them being Duncan) to ensure the success of the projects. By failing to properly review his

projects, such as the Hyatt, he ignored his responsibility for the safety of the people that

would enter the hotel upon completion. Thus violating the Reciprocity Principle. Havens

made a similar mistake.

Havens, having too many projects in progress, subcontracted the atrium steel

detailing work to another company named WRW, which was the company that actually

made the design modification previously mentioned. Havens took no steps to verify the

safety of the new design instead submitting it directly to Duncan. Just as in the case of

Gillum, Havens violated the Reciprocity Principle by taking on more projects than it could handle thereby treating the Hyatt project and those individuals involved in the project as a

means to an end. Also, Havens requested the modification from WRW in order to reduce

construction time and cost because Havens did not have the proper steel for the original

design (Baura, 2006). This again violated reciprocity because Havens was maximizing

profit at the cost of ensuring sound construction, which is not in the best interest of the

people that would be standing on the walkways they built.

Crown violated the Reciprocity Principle by deciding to construct the hotel as a fast-

track project. A fast-track project is a project in which construction begins before the

design plans are finished. This focuses on minimizing cost and ensuring speed of

completion sometimes resulting in compromising protocol and public safety. Crown thus

considered that the quicker the hotel was finished the sooner the investment would begin

producing income. This again violated the Reciprocity Principle by treating humans as a

means for profit instead of prioritizing their well-being.

Duncan and Gillum both violated the Universality Principle. Duncan constructed the

original design plans without properly calculating the design load on the connections for

the walkway support beams and, in doing so, violated the Kansas City Building Code.

Universalizing Duncan's actions gives: "It is allowable for structural engineers to design

buildings without consideration for the city building code". This would make it impossible

to construct a building because no one would want to enter it for fear of it collapsing. This

contradiction means that Duncan's actions violate the Universality Principle. As for Gillum,

when the atrium roof collapsed, he said to Crown that he would recheck the design of all

steel components of the atrium, which he did not do. This action as a Universal Law states

that it is allowable for all structural engineers to lie to their clients. If this were to happen, clients would not trust engineers and no buildings would ever be built, again violating

universality through contradiction and revealing this action as unethical. Also, Gillum

approved construction designs that he clearly did not properly examine. Universalizing

this would imply that it is allowable for all project overseers to approve designs without

review. If overseer review meant nothing, then no one would trust overseer approval and

the work of inexperienced structural engineers would go unverified. This contradicts the

purpose of overseer review, and thus violates universality. Duty ethics clearly shows where

those involved in the Hyatt Regency Hotel catastrophe went wrong, but what can be done

to prevent such events in the future?

The greatest issue in the hotel's construction, and specifically what resulted in the

walkway collapse, is the lack of verification and responsibility. If Gillum had verified the

work of Duncan, Duncan had verified Havens, and Havens had verified WRW, then the

error in the modification would have been caught before the hotel had ever opened for

business. This suggests a Universal Law: "It is allowable for all those responsible for the

verification of the work of others to check that the work of the party being inspected is

functional and valid". With this law, an overseer's approval would mean that, to the best of

that individual's knowledge, the structure is understood to be safe and functional. This

would result in a safer and more desirable world, resulting in no contradiction, so the

Universality Principle is satisfied. To implement this new law, it would be most effective to

have an independent group of engineers (paid only to ensure the safety of the structure,

not to minimize costs or keep development deadlines) verify the designs of the project at

major stages of construction.

Havens and Duncan both refused to take responsibility for their part in the design

failure. Havens claimed that it is the structural engineer's job to ensure that building code

is satisfied, and Duncan refused to take responsibility for a design that he did not construct

himself. Duncan and Havens should both be held responsible for their work.

Universalized, this states that it is allowable for all engineers to take responsibility for the

integrity of their own work. If this law were followed, engineers would verify all design

decisions and make sure that what they were helping to build was safe and provided the

service requested by the client. This law does not result in a contradiction to the maxim, so

the Universality Principle is satisfied. In order to accomplish this, any ambiguity on

responsibility must be removed. The American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE)

established a precedent to take care of this exact situation. After the walkway collapse, the

ASCE modified their code of ethics to state that structural engineers have full responsibility

for design projects (Pfatteicher, 2000). If this is properly enforced then the problem

between Havens and Duncan will not occur.

During construction, Duncan received inquiries on at least six separate occasions

about the integrity of the redesigned walkways (Pfatteicher, 2000). Duncan's response to

each inquirer was that the modification did not alter the integrity of the original design.

Duncan should have listened to the concerns of his peers. Universalizing this statement

would say, "it is allowable to listen to and take seriously the suggestions and concerns

expressed by others". If this were followed, then engineers would seriously pursue any

proposed issues and further ensure the safety of their projects. Again, this does not lead to

any contradiction, so the Universality Principle is satisfied. One way to implement this new law is through a public anonymous submission box that informs the public as well as

Crown and Gillum of the inquiries received by Duncan and others involved in the project.

Finally, Crown, Gillum, and Havens all took their projects as a means for profit. The

Reciprocity Principle shows that in each case, treating humans as an end in themselves

instead of a means implies prioritizing their safety over personal gain. Therefore, in

following the Reciprocity Principle, they would have given their projects more dedication,

even if that meant taking on fewer projects, for the sake of the safety of those things being

constructed. Forcing a maximum number of projects that a given hierarchy of individuals

can undertake based on an evaluation of their ability as well as outlawing the fast-track

project model can help accomplish this task.

The Hyatt Regency Hotel disaster killed 114 people and injured over 200 others.

Although the design modification was the reason cause of the accident, given the conduct of

the people designing the project, a disaster could have just as easily occurred anywhere

else in the hotel. Using duty ethics to analyze the actions of those involved in the

construction of the hotel showed that ego and a lack of appreciation for one's

responsibilities results in unethical behavior to the detriment of society. To avoid such

problems, companies undertaking major construction projects should bring in independent

engineers to verify the safety of the structure at critical stages in construction. Also,

structural engineers should ultimately be held accountable for all design work on a project.

In order for society to continue functioning, we must be able to trust that the structures

and devices that we use every day will work as intended and not do us any harm. Following

these guidelines will help ensure that such incidents as the Hyatt Regency walkway

collapse do not happen in the future.

Baura, G., 2006, Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective: Burlington, MA, Elsevier

Academic Press, 256 p.

National Bureau of Standards (NBS), 1982, Investigation of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency

walkways collapse: Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Commerce, 258 p.

Pfatteicher, S. K. A., "The Hyatt Horror": Failure and Responsibility in American

Engineering: Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, v. 14, no. 2, pp. 62-66.

van de Poel, I., 2011, Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction: The Atrium,

Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex, UK, John Wiley & Sons, 376 p.