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Iron, cold iron: on bridge collapses and 9/11

What does Sept. 11 have to do with a bridge collapse that killed 13 people? Everything. Read more… By Clayton Bennett 

“Gold is for the mistress, silver for the maid; copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.

“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall. “But iron, cold iron, is master of them all!”

— Rudyard Kipling

What does Sept. 11 have to do with a bridge collapse that killed 13 people? Everything.

On Sept. 11, 1916, the Pont de Québec Bridge over the St. Lawrence was nearly complete when the center span fell and 13 workers were killed. This followed a catastrophe nine years earlier, when the first bridge attempted in that location failed and 76 workers fell to their deaths. An investigation found that faulty engineering was to blame. The bridge was eventually completed in 1917, the longest railroad cantilever span built then or since.

A few years later, leaders from the Engineering Institute of Canada proposed a national professional association for engineers, along with a statement of principles. With help from Rudyard Kipling, the organization created the ceremony known as “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer,” which was later adopted by some engineering schools in the United States as well.

As engineering students near graduation, they may attend these ceremonies, at which each new graduate who takes an oath of ethical practice receives an iron ring to wear on the smallest finger of the engineer’s working hand. According to legend, these rings were first made of iron taken from the collapsed Pont de Québec Bridge.

59 St. Thomas graduates took part
At the University of St. Thomas earlier this month, 59 new engineering graduates took part in one of these ceremonies. The oath they take includes these words:

As an Engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.

As an Engineer, in humility and with the need for Divine guidance, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises. When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good. In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.

In the decades since this ceremony was first performed, engineers in Canada and the United States have designed, constructed, maintained, inspected, repaired, condemned, and decommissioned thousands of bridges. Some of those engineers wear the iron ring. All of them understand the responsibility they have for the safety of others who depend on their judgment and skills. Following ethical standards, inspecting engineers from the government, the University of Minnesota, and outside consulting firms declared the I-35W bridge structurally deficient as long ago as 1990.

Resurfacing, inspection chosen

While the designation of structural deficiency does not necessarily mean a bridge is unfit for service, the I-35W bridge, officially called Bridge 9340, ranked in the bottom 5 percent of federal sufficiency ratings for more than 100,000 heavily used bridges. Despite cautions about cracking and fatigue from MnDOT engineers, the state agency deferred repair work on the substructure, choosing instead to resurface the top deck and conduct periodic inspections of the support system.

Put bluntly, MnDOT engineers were told to keep inspecting a deficient structure rather than to fix it. This is a similar response to the one made by the White House in August 2001, when national security reports warned of an imminent attack on American soil — and nothing, at least nothing effective, was done with the information. The reasons given since both events have varied, but the underlying message is that public safety was not the highest priority of either administration.

In a few short months, a new bridge over the Mississippi River will take the place of Bridge 9340. Perhaps it will even be completed in time to show visitors to the Republican National Convention. At that convention, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will doubtless meet with some members of the current administration in the White House. He may be asked to join the party’s national ticket. And regardless of his own prospects, the governor will doubtless serve as a gracious host, welcoming guests to our beautiful state and cities.

The convention will take place just one week before Sept. 11, so a solemn commemoration of that day would be appropriate. Gov. Pawlenty could combine such an observation with a remembrance of our more recent, more local losses in Minneapolis. At one end of the new span across the river, when the time comes to cut the ribbon that opens the bridge, he could pause a moment. If any ranking administration officials are present, he could certainly ask them to join him in making a new oath to protect the public.

Then, producing a small box containing objects made from the twisted girders of the old bridge, he could present each elected official with a small but meaningful gift: an iron ring.

Clayton Bennett is a business writer and the author of several nonfiction books. He crossed the former I-35W bridge at least a thousand times. 

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