THE MASTER OF DISASTER

By Alex Prud’homme

Men’s Journal, February 2013

 

Bob Bea, the nation’s foremost forensic engineer, is the guy to call when levees break or oil rigs explode — to sift through the wreckage, assign blame, and try to prevent the same mistakes again. (He’s still working on that part.)

 

Robert Bea’s large, beige, seemingly bland office in the engineering building at the University of California at Berkeley is revealed, upon close inspection, to be a cabinet of wonders. Perched on top of neat filing cabinets and tucked into corners are mysterious artifacts from around the world: a massive drill bit, a chunk of rusted metal, a model of an oil platform, a cluster of giant barnacles, strands of Mardi Gras beads, a beer bottle, and other totems. Each of them has a story to tell. That drill bit? It came from an oil rig that sank off the coast of Australia, causing a $1 billion disaster. The rusted metal? It’s a piece of an oil tanker that supposedly “could not rust.” The clutch of barnacles? From the Arctic seabed, where the oil industry once claimed, “There is no life.” Bea (pronounced “bee”) keeps these mementos as teaching aids and to prompt discussion about the role of human fallibility in mishaps — a subject rarely discussed in engineering circles, yet one that he believes is just as important as mechanical failure or software glitches.

“Never let a good disaster go to waste” is Bea’s mantra ….

For the rest of this story, please go to your nearest newsstand and buy the Feb 2013 issue of Men’s Journal — then let me know what you think of it