In 1981, two suspended walkways collapsed in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency’s lobby, causing more than two hundred casualties. The reasons are Jack D. Gillum and Associates’ design that does not meet the requirements of safety specifications and the lack of communication between Jack D. Gillum and Associates and other units. According to the deontological ethics, Jack D. Gillum and Associates’ behaviors are unethical because the maxim “Design that violates safety regulations is acceptable for convenience and benefit.” which they act on cannot become a universal law. Besides, they misled people by hiding security risks. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is a professional organization to promote civil engineering development and improve people’s living standards. To prevent such unethical behaviors, ASCE should promote the introduction of computer programming technology into the implementation of building safety codes. Moreover, ASCE should protect people’s right to know about the safety of building structures and raise awareness of the importance of building codes.
The Kansas City Hyatt Regency is made up of three parts, which are a tower section, a functional area, and an atrium. The atrium is an ample open space, and three suspended walkways are located on the second to fourth floors to connect the tower section and the functional area. This elaborate layout allows people to move freely among the various areas of the hotel. The suspended walkway on the second floor and the walkway on the fourth floor are connected by the steel tie rods. Visitors can dance merrily in the atrium. Guests who don’t like to participate can still stop and watch from the suspended walkways to share the lively atmosphere. On July 17, 1981, about 1,600 people gathered on the first floor of the atrium to enjoy a tea dance, and about 36 people were on the second and fourth floors walkways. Suddenly, the steel suspender connecting the fourth-floor bridge burst. The entire fourth-floor walkway lost its supports and fell to the second-floor walkway together with those watching the dance above. Two walkways ended up on the ground floor together, hitting the dancing crowd below. Within seconds of the crash, hundreds of people were killed and many more buried in 60 tons of broken glass, scrap metal, and concrete. The rescue lasted for nearly 10 hours. The last survivor with dislocated legs was rescued at 4:30 a.m. According to the final tally, 29 people were rescued, 111 people died instantly, 216 people were injured, and three people died on the way to the hospital. (Buck, 2017)
The Engineering Failure
Many factors contributed to the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. The technical element is that the designers chose the most fragile box girder structure for a stunning effect. Jack D. Gillum and Associates is the structural engineer team for the Hyatt regency project. They are responsible for the design and drawing of the steel structure. Two groups of I-steel (W16x26) vertically support the concrete walkways of the bridge along the long side of the bridge. Along the short side of the bridge, the box girder supports the concrete walkway horizontally and is used to fix the steel tie rods. The box girder is welded by two C-beams (Mc8x8.5). The walkways on the second and fourth floors are connected by a long steel tie rod fixed to the roof. (Bernhardt, 2016) According to Jack D. Gillum and Associates’ original design, the bridge joint can bear a load of 180kN. However, the joint must carry 302kN of load without any structural problems according to the local building code of Kansas City. For the appearance effect, Jack D. Gillum and Associates ‘s original design has a load capacity of only 60% of the required. The suspended walkway has been in danger of collapsing ever since it was designed. (McFadden, 2018)
Figure 1. Cross Section of the Walkway (Bernhardt, 2016)
Moreover, the management factor is lack of communication. As shown above, Jack D. Gillum and Associates ‘s original design did use an extra-long steel tie rod to connect the second and fourth floors walkways and loaded with nuts. However, the construction unit felt that the 14-meter long steel tie rod was inconvenient to manufacture, difficult to transport, and complicated to install. Therefore, it was suggested to change the design of Jack D. Gillum and Associates to connect two steel tie rods and submit the roughly revised drawing. The original intention of the construction unit was to have Jack D. Gillum and Associates reviews and checks the intensity, but the design unit thought that this drawing had been tested and approved by the construction unit according to the convention, so it had stamped the approval seal. The construction company also thought that the drawings had been accepted after the design unit’s review, feeling lucky to reduce the workload. The change in force caused by design changes is enormous. The nut of the upper walkway should bear not only the weight of this layer but also the weight of the lower layer, doubling the load. During the accident, the bridge connecting the fourth floor was carrying a load of 93kN. However, the joint can only withstand up to 83kN of force. Lack of communication between design unit and construction unit makes the problem worse. (Buck, 2017)
Kant’s first categorical imperative is the universality principle, which requires there is no contradiction when people’s maxim become a universal law (Poel, 2011). In the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse case, the maxim of Jack D. Gillum and Associates is “For convenience and benefit, Jack D. Gillum and Associates will design drawings that do not meet the safety requirements.” To examine if the maxim can be universalized, people need to explain whether this maxim can become a universal law without contradiction. According to the maxim, the universal law is supposed to be “Product that does not meet the safety requirements is allowable.” If this universal law is valid, selling a drawing would be impossible. There is no rational hotel developer would buy a drawing because they could not build a safe hotel according to drawings. Since there is no trade, the goods have no meaning. Therefore, the maxim cannot be universalized because it raises a contradiction. Jack D. Gillum and Associates should not follow their maxim.
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The second categorical imperative is the reciprocity principle, which requires that people should not use humanity and respect the individual moral judgment through reasoning (Poel, 2011). In our Hyatt Regency walkway collapse case, Jack D. Gillum and Associates should inform the hotel developer and the guests of the hotel that the drawing doesn’t meet the safety requirement due to a variety of reasons. Otherwise, the hotel developer couldn’t make a rational decision about building a hotel according to the drawings or not. The hotel guest couldn’t make a reasonable decision about checking into the hotel or not. If they knew that the drawing doesn’t meet the safety requirement, the hotel developer probably not built the hotel according to the drawings, and the guest might not get close to the hotel. By failing to inform them, the rational agency of the hotel developer was thus misled, and they were used as merely a means to achieve Jack D. Gillum and Associates’ aim: selling their designs.
According to Kant’s universality principle, Jack D. Gillum and Associates’ behavior is unethical since their maxim, “Design that violates safety regulations is acceptable for convenience and benefit.” cannot be universal. To prevent similar behavior, ASCE should promote introducing computer programming technology into the implementation of building safety codes. Computer programming can be applied to all kinds of structures, such as factories, roads, bridges, buildings, and so on. It helps engineers for modeling, drafting, and processing complex calculations. It plays a vital role in the detailed design, the rapid treatment of the complex stress in the structure, and the improvement of the design (Adu, 2014). If this recommendation is applied in the Hyatt regency walkway collapse case, the corresponding application would suggest that the design does not meet the safety requirements when Jack D. Gillum and Associates completed their design and modeling. In addition, Jack D. Gillum and Associates would be required to submit their electronic models to the relevant departments for review. Then the department’s application would double-check to make the decision if it should be approved or not. As a result, that tragedy might not have happened. Compared with manual work, computer programming makes structural design more accessible, more efficient, and more accurate. It ensures the enforcement of building safety codes.
According to Kant’s reciprocity principle, Jack D. Gillum and Associates’ behavior is unethical since they use humanity as means by concealing the safety of hotels. To prevent similar behavior, ASCE should protect people’s right to know about the safety of building structures. In the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse case, there might not have been so many people standing on the suspended walkways if Jack D. Gillum and Associates could put up signs at both ends of the suspended walkways to indicate the maximum number of people it could hold. Moreover, another recommendation is raising awareness of the importance of building codes. Most people don’t have enough expertise to ensure that the design and construction meet safety specifications even if the entire design is made public. Building code is an important guarantee to protect people’s life and property. People need to be educated about the importance of building codes. For example, they are encouraging people to participate actively in hearings on the adoption of building codes (Lukasik, 2018).
In conclusion, the tragedy of the bridge collapse was caused by the immoral behavior of the designer. ASCE, as an organization dedicated to civil engineering and the improvement of people’s living standards, should restrain the practice and ethics of engineers. The introduction of computer programming technology can quickly and accurately check the design results and effectively improve the supervision of engineers. ASCE should require engineers to disclose design and structural data to protect the public’s right to know.
- Adu, Michael. Improving Structural Designs with Computer Programming in Building Construction. IOSR Journal of Computer Engineering, 2014, www.researchgate.net/publication/269750991_Improving_Structural_Designs_with_Computer_Programming_in_Building_Construction.
- Bernhardt, Randall. “Hyatt Regency Skywalk Collapse Remembered.” STRUCTURE Magazine, Aug. 2016, www.structuremag.org/?p=10274.
- Buck, Stephanie. “When This Hotel Skywalk Collapsed, It Was One of the Deadliest Structural Failures in US History.” Medium, Timeline, 2 Aug. 2017, timeline.com/hyatt-regency-skywalk-failure-8240bff34fa6.
- Lukasik, Tara. “Bring on Building Safety: Code Enforcement Explained.” ICC, 30 Apr. 2018, www.iccsafe.org/building-safety-journal/bsj-dives/bring-on-building-safety-code-enforcement-explained/.
- McFadden, Christopher, and Christopher McFadden. “Understanding the Tragic Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse.” Interesting Engineering, Interesting Engineering, 12 Mar. 2018, interestingengineering.com/understanding-hyatt-regency-walkway-collapse.
- Poel, Ibo Van De, and Lambèr M. M. Royakkers. Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An
- Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 69-95. Print.
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