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The Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse

Situation

In July 1980, the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, opened for business, boasting among its design features a multistory atrium with three suspended walkways—a fourth-story walkway spanning directly above a walkway on the second floor, with a third-story walkway offset by a few meters. One year after the opening, the walkways on the second and fourth stories collapsed under the weight of partygoers, killing 114 people in one of the most devastating structural failures in U.S. history in terms of lives lost.

The collapse was traced to failure of the connections between the fourth-story box beams and the hanger rods supporting the second-story and fourth-story walkways. An investigation revealed that the original design sketches had called for the two walkways to be suspended by a single set of hanger rods threaded through the upper walkway box beams and terminating beneath the box beams of the lower walkway. Although that design proved to be in violation of Kansas City's minimum load requirements, the primary cause of the failure was a change from the original design to a double-rod system, one hanger rod connecting the ceiling to the upper walkway and the other connecting the lower and upper walkways. This change had the effect of doubling the load on the upper walkway connections, resulting in a design capable of withstanding only an estimated 30 percent of the mandated minimum.

The engineer of record attributed the fatal design flaw to a breakdown in communication. He stated that he had assigned supervision of the project to an associate structural engineer, who was not an asce member. As the engineer of record was responsible for roughly 10 associate engineers, each of whom supervised six or seven projects at a time, he acknowledged that he could not personally oversee every aspect of the design. Instead, he entrusted the responsibility to the associate in charge of each project.

The engineer of record further contended that it was common practice in the industry for the structural engineer to leave the design of steel-to-steel connections to the fabricator. The original design provided in the structural drawings was intended only to be conceptual.

When the fabricators found that design to be impracticable, they requested approval of the double-rod system by telephone. The structural engineer verbally approved the change, with the understanding that a written request for the change would be submitted for formal approval. This follow-up request was never honored. In fact, the fabricators had just begun work on the shop drawings when a sudden increase in workload required them to subcontract the work to an outside detailer. That detailer, in turn, mistakenly believed that the double-rod connection on the shop drawings had already been designed and therefore performed no calculations on the connection himself.

The design documents were returned to the engineer of record with a request for expedited approval. He assigned review to a technician on his staff; however, the connections were not detailed on the drawings and the technician did not perform calculations on the connections. The structural engineer performed "spot checks" on portions of the shop drawings, and the engineer of record affixed his seal to the documents. The latter stated that he had not personally checked all calculations and had relied on the work of his project engineer and design team.

Question

Did the engineer of record's actions in placing his seal on design documents without verifying the soundness of the structural design violate asce's Code of Ethics?

Decision

Canon 1 of the Code of Ethics at the time of the walkway collapse read as follows: "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties." Category (a) of the guidelines to practice for canon 1 had this to say: "Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health, and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions, and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes, and devices." Further, category (b) in the guidelines for that canon read as follows: "Engineers shall approve or seal only those design documents, reviewed or prepared by them, which are determined to be safe for public health and welfare in conformity with accepted engineering standards."

The Committee on Professional Conduct (cpc) was not persuaded by the engineer of record's argument that each person in the design process was responsible for his or her own part of the work. Finding that the engineer's seal made him responsible for all elements of the structural design, the cpc held that the member had violated the Code of Ethics, and it voted to recommend to the Board of Direction that he be expelled from the Society. However, the board disagreed as to the extent of the member's ethics violation, holding that the engineer had been "vicariously responsible" for the tragedy "but not guilty of gross negligence nor of unprofessional conduct." It voted to suspend the engineer from membership for a period of three years.

Space does not permit a full exposition of the circumstances surrounding the Hyatt Regency collapse. Readers wishing a more thorough treatment of this subject are directed to the following articles:

Gillum, J.D. "The Engineer of Record and Design Responsibility." Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 14, number 2 (2000): 67—70.

Luth, G.P. "Chronology and Context of the Hyatt Regency Collapse." Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 14, number 2 (2000): 51—61.

Moncarz, P.D., and R.K. Taylor. "Engineering Process Failure—Hyatt Walkway Collapse." Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 14, number 2 (2000): 46—50.

Pfatteicher, S.K.A. "'The Hyatt Horror': Failure and Responsibility in American Engineering." Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 14, number 2 (2000): 62—66.

Special thanks are in order to Paul R. Munger, Ph.D., p.e., f.asce, for his contributions to this article.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the cpc may call asce's hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-asce (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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