Long before plastic wristbands became a sign of some sort of social responsibility, I wore a small silver pinky ring. As part of my senior class, I joined the Order of the Engineer. At my induction ceremony, I recited the Obligation, a creed similar to the oath health professionals take.

I thought about this token on Aug. 3 when United Airlines again assigned me to seat 22E. As I settled into the middle seat of the last row, I noticed that the woman next to me seemed slightly distraught, looking woefully out the window.

She was very quiet until our approach in Chicago. Just before touchdown, the pilot pulled up, bringing us back up to the friendly skies. When I looked out the window, past my rowmate to watch our skyward flight, she looked at me apprehensively.

“That normally doesn't happen,” I said. She replied, with an almost a tearful look, “I don't need any more things like that.”

She proceeded to tell me an almost unbelievable story. She was on her way home after attending an academic conference at the Holiday Inn near the University of Minnesota. Following her first day of the conference, she telephoned her two young sons in Maryland. She was standing on her room's balcony looking at the skyline while talking away.

She picked an inopportune time to gaze outward. She saw a cloud of dust, heard a rumble, and then all was quiet. She was a witness to the I-35W bridge collapse. “It happened so fast, I didn't realize what I saw,” she said. “My son urged me to take photos with my cell phone camera. I did. I'm not sure why, because I won't download them when I get home.”

She tried looking for fellow conference attendees amid the pandemonium. Her hotel quickly became the center of the triage and search efforts. The next morning, she looked out her same window to see the flock of television reporters who gathered on the hotel's parking deck, allowing their backgrounds to include a view of the bridge.

Then she asked me in a quiet voice, “How could something like that happen?”

At first, I wanted to offer her all sorts of engineering-based insights of metal fatigue. Then I wanted to reassure her by saying that that particular bridge design isn't as common with newer structures. And of course, I really wanted say that concrete wasn't to blame for the collapse.

I said nothing of this. What I said probably didn't offer her too much assurance. “My readers are building some very safe, necessary structures every day. I know for a fact that they take this responsibility very seriously.”

Recently, I've been considering going back into industry, perhaps doing something more tangible. I've been missing the sense of purpose, of accomplishment. But as I reflected on my reply to the young woman's question, I realized my mission here isn't finished.

While I'm not in a position to design, cast, or manage the construction of a new bridge, building, or even patio, I can highlight our industry's effort to help create a safer world. By reporting on your efforts that are often never told elsewhere, we can rebuild the public trust in engineering and the performance of quality construction materials.

Please share your thoughts and stories with me, and perhaps offer some insights on how we can convince our public policymakers to pay for replacing and repairing deficient public structures.

I never want to have an opportunity to interview a witness of structural engineering failures again. And I'm relying on you to make sure that doesn't happen.

To learn more about The Order of the Engineer, visit the volunteer organization's Web site at www.order-of-the-engineer.org.

Rick Yelton
Editor In Chief
ryelton@hanleywood.com