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UW Engineering Professors Help at Ground Zero and International Disasters

September 7, 2011
Building collapsing
University of Wyoming Professor Michael Barker took this photo of Ground Zero in New York City while on a mission of recovery there shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (Michael Barker)

(Editor's note: The following article was contributed by Lorrie McNamee and Kali McCrackin of Laramie and Drew Shutts of Casper, students in Associate Professor Cindy Price's Public Relations class at UW.)

Michael Barker's perspective on the 9/11 tragedy is much more personal than that of most Americans. Within hours after the collapse of the twin towers, he was on a rescue mission at Ground Zero.

A professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, Barker recalls the text messages he received on Sept. 11, 2001, that the World Trade Center had been struck by two planes. Being trained to save lives at disaster sites, he had never envisioned being called to serve in one of the most catastrophic moments in United States history.

"It was utter devastation, like those cities that were bombed out in World War II, just incredible," Barker recalls. "It was very emotional -- something I'll never forget."

Barker's journey to Ground Zero started in 1992 when, as a faculty member at the University of Missouri, he joined the Missouri Search and Rescue Task Force in Columbia. His expertise in structures continued to be valuable when an official Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) team was formed in 1996.

The team was deployed to the World Trade Center for nine days to perform search and rescue efforts and other operations. The assignment was for the engineers to help operations enter collapsed buildings while managing risk and doing whatever they could to assist with the rescue mission.

Barker was often the first member of the team to enter the damaged buildings. His expertise proved invaluable because he could assess the structural integrity of the damaged structures and areas of weakness in the rubble, knowledge that was critical to entering and exiting safely.

"The risks were high," he says. "We had to determine where it was safest to go in to start searching, how long we would be in dangerous areas and how to mitigate risk to our team."

After coming to UW in 2003, Barker was invited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to join its disaster response efforts. Five days after Hurricane Katrina, Barker received a call to serve with a specialty team for the federal government. The team worked to repair bridges, evaluate the condition of marinas, ensure safe water rescue operations and inspect damaged schools for structural soundness.

But Barker isn't the only civil and architectural engineering faculty member who has used their expertise to improve safe structures around the world.

"Although we live in Wyoming, we actually work on an international stage, both in our research and in service to our professions," says Dick Schmidt, head of the UW Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering. "There are no geographic or political borders to the tragic events that we face. So the work we do here has an impact worldwide."

An example of this is associate professor David Mukai. What started out as an opportunity to learn more about the field of earthquake engineering ended in hands-on experience for Mukai. He was on his sabbatical in Christchurch, New Zealand, at the University of Canterbury when a 7.3 magnitude earthquake hit the city in September 2010.

"Ironically, I chose UC because of its rich heritage in earthquake engineering. I ended up in the middle of a large earthquake and was able to use my knowledge and skills to help the New Zealand earthquake engineering community assess the damage," Mukai says. "Normally, I wouldn't be on a team from the U.S. to travel to a place like New Zealand to participate in the reconnaissance, so I was in the right place at the right time."

In addition to inspecting damaged buildings, Mukai and GNS scientist John Zhao inspected strong motion sensor locations.

"These locations are very valuable," Mukai says. "They help experts estimate the ground acceleration at other points in the city."  Also, damage in the surrounding buildings can be correlated to the ground acceleration at these locations.

After his time in New Zealand, Mukai finished his sabbatical in Japan at Kyoto University, where he worked with his former University of Washington classmate, Susumu Kono. During this time he had the opportunity to meet numerous earthquake experts, some of whom he would work with a couple of months later after another quake hit Christchurch, with nearly 200 fatalities.

Kono, who led the reconnaissance team from Japan, added Mukai to the team. Mukai says the major highlight for him was that a group from Japan accepted him as a teammate.

"We quickly established a sense of camaraderie as we tackled the demanding and rewarding task ahead of us. Incredibly, during our second day in New Zealand, the Great East Japan earthquake struck," he says. "Working with this team of earthquake engineering experts while they were receiving updates from loved ones and colleagues all while assessing an earthquake in New Zealand was a surreal experience."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last spring sent Barker to New Zealand as part of a team that helped assess the risk from damaged buildings and to advise on plans to re-occupy parts of the city. Barker says his knowledge and experience in experimental testing of large-scale structures and his failure forensics experience helps in his role as a rescue engineer

"The engineer is one part of a team that is there to save lives - the ultimate goal of the urban search and rescue system," he says.

Another UW faculty member who has studied earthquake engineering is associate professor Jenny Tanner. When a massive earthquake hit Chile in February 2010, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and the Masonry Society  selected her to assess structural damage to masonry buildings.

"We worked with experts from the United States, Chilean academics and Chilean government officials to document damage and report on lessons learned from the earthquake," Tanner says. "We took pictures of collapsed walls and floor systems as well as foundations and support damage to further assess the problems that led to their collapse."

The three professors have taken their experiences back to the classroom to enhance the learning experience for their students. By working in buildings that were destroyed or on the verge of collapsing, they present examples of engineering principles that can be applied in new design and construction.

"Our graduates compete for jobs and ultimately work on a global scale. We're obligated to prepare them for a wide variety of professional challenges and opportunities," Schmidt says. "That means our faculty have to be recognized experts in their fields and bring their expertise into the classroom for our students."

Then future UW graduates can use their skills to protect and save lives, as their mentor professors have.

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