Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

When Is History History?: The Collapse of the Conner Hotel

I usually don't write about things that happened within my memory, because I don't really consider them historical. If I can remember when something happened, I tend to still think of it as contemporary. But then, if I stop to consider how old I am and how far back my memory stretches, I'm forced to re-evaluate my definition of history. After all, I can remember things that happened sixty years ago. Take, for example, the assassination of JFK. I've never really thought of it as history because I lived through the era when it happened. I was a senior in high school at the time. But then I realize that it's been over fifty years now. The large majority of Americans today were not even born when Kennedy was killed, and an even larger majority were not old enough at the time to remember the event. So, for those people, JFK's assassination is definitely history. So, I guess it should be history for the rest of us, too. In fact, I suppose, in its broadest definition, history can be thought of as anything that happened in the past, even if was just one year ago, one month ago, or maybe even one week ago.
All of this by way of introducing today's topic, the collapse of the Connor Hotel in Joplin in November of 1978. I definitely I have never thought of it as history, not only because I lived in Joplin at the time it happened but because I actually wrote about it when it was still a (relatively) contemporary event. Yet again, when I stop to consider how much time has passed since 1978, I realize that probably only about half of the people who lived in the Joplin area at the time the Connor collapsed are still alive today and probably less than half of the people who lived in Joplin and were old enough at the time to be able to recall the event firsthand today are still alive. After all, it's been 36 years.
So, I guess the collapse of the Conner Hotel is history, too. At least it is going to be history for the purposes of today's post. The facts of the case briefly are as follows: The Connor Hotel, a historic hotel that had been built in 1907 at the corner of 4th and Main in Joplin, was being prepared for demolition to make way for a new public library. (By the way, the library is getting ready to vacate the building that was constructed at 4th and Main and move into a new building on 20th Street within the next couple of years. Some of the funds Joplin received in the wake of the tornado three years ago are slated to be used to help finance the new library building.) On Saturday, November 11, Alfred "Butch" Summers was working in the basement, and two other men were working nearby or on one of the nine-story building's lower floors. The three men were notching beams and otherwise preparing the building for implosion when it unexpectedly collapsed prematurely.
What followed were several days of frantic rescue efforts as construction crews worked round the clock trying to find any signs of life beneath the rubble. Truckload after truckload of debris was removed as hastily as possible while still taking care not to needlessly endanger anybody who might possibly be alive beneath the ruins. High tech listening devices were flown in to listen for any signs of life. Dogs trained in search and rescue were brought in to try to find any possible survivors. The collapse and frantic rescue efforts made national headlines, but hope gradually faded as time passed with no signs of life. But then, miraculously, on Tuesday evening, three and a half days after the collapse, with layer after layer of debris having been removed, a man's faint voice was heard coming from beneath the remaining rubble. Al Summers was rescued in relatively good health (suffering only mild dehydration) after spending what he called a "long Saturday" beneath the ruins of the nine-story building, and national interest in the story spiked. In fact, as far as making national headlines, the Connor Hotel collapse was one of the biggest things that ever happened in Joplin until the 2011 tornado. Not long after Summers was rescued, the other two men were found dead, and it was concluded that they had likely died immediately when the building collapsed.
For a more complete telling of the Connor Hotel collapse story, you might try to get hold of the December 1979 issue of Reader's Digest, which contains my "Drama in Real Life" account of the event. Also, I think the Joplin Public Library has a copy of my original manuscript of 50+ pages, which describes the event in much more detail. The Reader's Digest simply took my much longer manuscript and "digested" it into a much shorter version.

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