KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Brent Wright was a teenager in 1981, working at Oak Park Mall on Friday, July 17. News didn’t travel so fast those days, so he didn’t know about the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse until the next day.
“Saturday morning I got a call from my dad, and he said, ‘Go pick up your sister, and come home. I need to talk to you,'” Wright said. “You get that kind of call, and you know there’s no good news coming, but we never could have expected what we heard when we walked in the door.”
The news was gut-wrenching. The fourth floor skywalk in the hotel’s lobby had fallen onto the second-floor skywalk, bringing both crashing down onto dancers below due to a structural design flaw.
Wright’s mother, Karen Jeter, and stepfather, Eugene Jeter, were among those dancers and died in the tragedy, along with 112 other people.
“They’d gotten married July 1st, and went on a honeymoon,” Wright said. “And sixteen days later, they were right over there at the hotel…”
Wright was overwhelmed, and couldn’t find relief. The news coverage of the collapse continued for days, and the feeling of loss intensified.
“I had to go back later and pick up their car. Their car was still parked there in the parking lot. Their things were there in the car,” Wright said. “Went to the police station, I had to pick up their personal effects. Those were all crushed and covered in blood. You never forget.”
He said he recognized there were two ways to cope with the loss.
“With tragedy like this, I think we have two choices: one is curl up in a ball, and just ignore everything, or you try and move forward, and you try and get something positive to come out of this,” Wright said.
As an adult, he joined the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, and played a big part in getting the memorial built. He told 41 Action News that he was spurred on by something his mom once told him.
“I remember having conversations with her, talking about death, and, ‘What if I’m gone?’” Wright said. “She’d say, ‘Go, live your life, be happy, but don’t forget me.’”
Over the course of the last 40 years, Wright has shared his story, and he’s heard, and felt, the stories of almost every name on the memorial.
“There was a little girl, 11 years old, who was there with her father that night… Pamela Coffey,” Wright said. “It was a daddy-daughter dance night, and they were together, and in the collapse, he died and she was under his body. She was alive for a while. They prayed the rosary with her until she died. I met her family, and (we’re) still friends today.”
Wright said it’s important to remember those lost in the disaster.
“We get a lot of things in our lives every day: texts, emails, news at every second,” Wright said. “And it’s easy to kind of lose some of that in the noise of everyday life. But we shouldn’t. We should remember that, and never forget.”
Wright said that he comes to the memorial, which is just a short walk from his office, every now and then. But anniversaries are when he most often sees someone else who lost a loved one in the tragedy.