Engineering 101, Part 1

My first structural engineering lesson happened in 1981. I was 12 years old. It started as any typical muggy Midwest summer evening that I would spend rollerskating in the street in front of our house as the stars came out. But this night was different. Daddy called me into the house where he and Uncle Ray sat in front of the television. There had been some tragedy in Missouri, and they said watching the news stunned and in silence. After a while Daddy explained to me that a recently built, Kansas City hotel was architected with a new structure called sky walks. Each sky walk spanned from one end of the hotel to the other. They were suspended over the open space atrium in the center of the hotel and offered visitors a walkway to other parts of the building. On this Friday night in July, couples were enjoying dinner and dancing in the hotel atrium, while on lookers watched from the sky walks. When all of a sudden The sky walks collapsed onto each other and then on to the dancers below. The structural failure sent thousands of pounds of metal, concrete, glass, and bodies crashing to the ground. 114 people lost their lives. A hundred and eighteen more were injured. We sat in silence and watch the live news coverage. Images of devastation, disbelief, and despair, were burned into my memory and I truly grieved for people who I had never met, but would never forget. As the evening progressed, Daddy and Uncle Ray a couple of skilled carpenters began to theorize and debate about how it happened. They spoke technically, mechanically, and matter-of-factly of load-balancing and support beams. I sat quietly in my own thoughts for a while, only half listening. But then I just couldn’t hold it in. I didn’t care how it happened. All I could think about were the children who were suddenly orphans. Who would take care of them? Where would they go? I was overwhelmed by the thought that at the very moment that I sat there with my family, there were children learning about the news of their mother or father — or both. That there were people searching for survivors and digging bodies from beneath the rubble. And that moments before all of this, They were people just like us. laughing and dancing and making memories. Angrily and brokenheartedly, I asked Daddy and Uncle Ray how they could talk about such things when so many people were suffering. Daddy’s response was simple: “We must.” We must know why and how it happens so that it never happens again. Almost a year later, we all learned what really happened on that devastating night.

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