I-35W bridge failure turns into powerful teaching tool

Charlie Kiolbasa studied the 35W bridge collapse.
While at the University of St. Thomas, Charlie Kiolbasa did research on issues related to the I-35W collapse. Here, he stands at the memorial site earlier this month.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Charlie Kiolbasa was 14 in 2007 when the steel supports on the Interstate 35W bridge buckled and plunged rush-hour traffic into the Mississippi River, leaving him stunned and shaken by the devastation he saw on TV.

"It was scary at the time because my dad would sometimes take that route home from work. There was that brief moment of we're not sure if my dad was on that bridge or not," Kiolbasa recalled recently. "Luckily, he was not."

The collapse of the Minneapolis bridge still had a profound effect on Kiolbasa. It fueled a fascination with bridges and their designs. He remembers downloading a computer game allowing him to virtually construct and test structures.

Eventually, he'd enroll in an engineering program at the University of St. Thomas, where he took on a research project featuring a 3-D model of the gusset plate cited by investigators as the I-35W bridge breaking point.

"We actually made a model that could subject that part to same amount of force that was supposedly under and were able to see all of the internal stresses that part was undergoing," he said.

"This project allowed students to even change the thickness of the plates to show how if they designed the plates to be thicker how it would have held the stresses better," Kiolbasa said.

For Kiolbasa and other new engineers, the collapse provides more than a textbook case of design failure. It's become a powerful teaching tool. That's especially true in Minnesota, where some colleges are using pieces of the salvaged bridge wreckage to reinforce lessons on professional responsibility.

George W. Bush meets rescue workers at the bridge site.
President George W. Bush, center, with Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek, center left, meets rescue workers and law enforcement while tours the damage at the collapsed bridge.
Charles Dharapak | AP 2007

"You're engineers. You're from Minnesota. You have got to know what happened to this bridge," said Katherine Acton, a St. Thomas engineering professor who taught Kiolbasa and hammers home the point in lectures. "I mean, that's your history."

St. Thomas was among several universities receiving artifacts from the collapsed bridge — pieces as small as bolts and as large as the hulking and twisted beams that became an iconic image of the tragedy.

Once the probe into the deadly bridge collapse concluded and lawsuits were resolved, the Minnesota Department of Transportation gave away steel from the collapsed span. Survivors and first responders got pieces, but the agency also put engineering programs on the list "to help prevent such calamities in the future," said MnDOT spokesperson Kevin Gutknecht.

St. Thomas is still working to find a permanent place for its artifacts — two hunks of the rusting watermelon-green beams and plates with jagged edges from where they snapped.

"There are some pieces that were basically just torn as if you were to squeeze them like they were taffy," Acton said recently as she pointed to one section with a gusset plate that was a sister to the snapped connector blamed in the collapse.

The pieces are part of the Engineering 221 "Mechanics of Materials" course usually taken by sophomores in civil and mechanical degree programs. Acton hopes students who go on to engineering careers grasp how a faulty design can be so devastating.

"I've brought lab groups over here and maybe it's a group of 10 or 12 and we'll be chatting all the way over," she said. "Then we turn the corner and we look at the bridge everybody stops talking for a minute, and then somebody will say 'Wow.'"

At the University of Minnesota, engineering program graduates get the message, too.

Parts of the collapsed bridge were molded into a basketball-sized chromed ring placed atop an unfinished steel plate. A plaque describes exactly where it all came from: "Steel from the I-35W Mississippi River truss arch bridge, #9340, Minneapolis, MN." School officials had contemplated using the steel for an on-campus memorial but said this made a stronger point.

Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering head Joe Labuz said graduates place their hand through it while a stainless steel ring is put on their finger. The Order of the Engineer ceremony reminds them of a solemn duty.

U of M engineering prof. Joe Labuz with a ring from I-35W bridge remnants.
Professor Joe Labuz stands near a chromed ring, fashioned from steel remnants of the collapsed I-35W bridge, that's now used in graduation ceremonies.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

"It's similar to the oath that doctors take where we recognize the seriousness of our profession and the obligation we have to making sure our designs are safe," he said.

And, there's now an undergraduate engineering course at the university designed around sensors in infrastructure. They generate continuous readings and alerts of problems. Hundreds of the smart instruments are embedded in the new I-35W bridge barely a mile away.

The disaster was felt at the school because many of his colleagues had projects related to the bridge that fell and the one that went up in its place.

"When I started in civil engineering, I wanted to build bridges," Labuz said. "Bridges to me are some of the most beautiful structures in the world. When that happened it really hit close to home."

Norma Jean Mattei, a professor at the University of New Orleans and the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the I-35W case is a powerful teaching aid because it isn't ancient history, and many of today's young engineers are familiar with the event and its aftermath.

"In the day to day practice of engineering you sometimes don't realize, don't think how important some of your decision are when it comes to how those decisions affect the health safety and welfare of the public until something like this happens," she said.

Kiolbasa, the St. Thomas graduate, now works as a quality engineer at a medical device company. He lives in Minneapolis and often drives by the I-35W memorial on his way home.

Inscriptions on the memorial stick with him, as does an underlying message.

"It's that whole cliche about those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it," he said. "So that's something they take every opportunity of whenever some tragedy happens make sure we're learning from it and don't repeat it."

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