On August 14th a section of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, collapsed. The incident took some 40 lives and sent hundreds of people searching for shelter. Repairs will amount to the equivalent of a lifetime of labour for many people.
Riccardo Morandi was a great Bridge builder doing the profession proud. The biggest feather in his cap is the 8 ½ Km long Maracaibo bridge in Venezuela. Google it – it is impressive. Then look up the Kinnaird Bridge standing closer to home in Castlegar BC. If you notice similarities, it is because of Morandi.
The Kinnaird Bridge was designed by Choukalos, Woodburn & Mckenzie, the “Engineers” for short. Theirs was not the biggest Engineering firm in BC, but their work was tops, for they were forever seeking to stay at the cutting edge of technology. It was proper that the Ministry of Highways selected them to span the Columbia River with the Kinnaird Bridge.
They sought to incorporate the brilliant pier design Morandi used in Maracaibo. Ministry engineers saw the preliminary design and freaked out. No dice – go back to drawing board and come back with something sensible, they said.
The Engineers did it their way. They went back to Victoria, Professor Morandi in tow. They had flown Morandi from Rome to help change the minds of the Victorians. He easily charmed the Bridge guys in Victoria and the Kinnaird Bridge was to be built as it now stands.
I was honoured to partake in a dinner with the great man, at Traders Vics at the Bayshore Inn, in Vancouver. He was much enjoying the evening and getting a tad tipsy. In the course of the dinner Morandi explained his secret design technique. He gestured with his hands and said that his method was simple; he would doodle-draw a bridge until he gets one with beautiful lines – then he would gives it to the “kids”, meaning young engineers, to do the calculations, he said. The best looking turns out to be the best design, technically and financially, as well, he added. His words still reside in my mind.
The Kinnaird Bridge was nearing completion, in 1965 I think it was, when disaster struck. The riverbed around one of the piers was eroding and this was seriously endangering the Bridge. The “Hydraulics Consultant” for the Kinnaird Bridge was Professor Tom Blench, of the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, who had been appointed by the Ministry of Highways, as was usual. Inexplicably, when consulted on the scour problem and without a site inspection, Blench ordered rocks be dumped at the scour-hole.
Several barge-loads of rock were dumped into the scour-hole, without turning things around. The annual river freshet was coming and anxiety was growing and spreading.
My Master’s thesis was “Scour Around Bridge Piers” and my friends, the Engineers, in a breech of protocol driven by desperation asked me to look at the woes of the Bridge and this I did. The next day I was walking on the Kinnaird Bridge deck and I spotted the problem. Leftovers of the construction false-works were deflecting the water the wrong way and that was causing the problem. The remedy I prescribed was to stop dumping rocks and to remove the remaining falsework right away. We ran that through the Ministry in Victoria and, in that moment of desperation, they consented to my remedy and reverted to praying for divine intervention.
Incidentally, the construction supervising engineer of the Bridge, a hard-nosed Scot, was at the time recovering from appendix surgery when I went to inspect the situation. He literally escaped from the Hospital and came to the Bridge.
My prescription worked like a charm. A couple of days after the cleanup, the scour filled up to design level, the Bridge was safe and everybody started breathing easy. And it still stands strong today
Somewhere in my papers is a document signed by the Chief Bridge Engineer, attesting to me “having saved” the Kinnaird Bridge.
No matter how sure of your solution to a problem you may be, making such big decisions is stressful and you have to cope with the stress until Nature tests your judgement. Unlike the judges of human-made law, Engineers cannot send sheriffs to enforce their pronouncements – the laws of Nature are inescapable and unforgiving.
But the joy from being right makes it all worth it. In that instance my worry lasted a few days, the joy the rest of my life.