Cautionary Tales – A Fascination with Failure / Death on the Dance Floor (classic)

21st July, 2023

This week I present a personal reflection on what the late Henry Petroski meant to me and how he influenced my thinking and writing, followed by our classic episode “Death on the Dance Floor”.

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski remains a delight.

How one tiny error brought 60 tons of glass, concrete and steel crashing down on a packed hotel lobby.

With its splendid modern architecture, the Hyatt Regency was the place to be seen in Kansas City in 1981. Beneath space-age walkways, guests drank, laughed and danced… not realising that the 60 tons of of glass, concrete and steel hanging above their heads was about to come crashing down.

One hundred and fourteen people died. But why? Was it cheap materials? Shoddy construction? Or a tiny error that seemed so insignificant that no one paid it any attention?

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley, with support from Courtney Guarino and Emily Vaughn.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, including Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Royston Beserve, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morana, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

The Kansas City Star’s reporting was an essential source, including Donna McGuire “The Hyatt tragedy: 20 years later; Memories, lessons live on; Fatal disaster remains impossible to forget” The Kansas City Star 15 July 2001, Rick Montgomery “20 Years Later: Many are continuing to learn from skywalk collapse” Kansas City Star 3 Oct 2001, and Kevin Murphy “Hyatt skywalks collapse changed lives forever” The Kansas City Star Magazine 10 July 2011.

The May 2000 edition of the Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities features several articles on the tragedy, by Piotr Moncarz et al; Gregory Luth; Sarah Pfatteicher; and Jack Gillum.

Two essential books covering the tragedy are Henry Petroski’s To Engineer is Human and Levy and Salvadori’s Why Buildings Fall Down.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This