Fortune Favors the Brave and the Daring

ULF RAMM ERICKSON, ’48, MS ’49, a Swedish Stanford graduate was in the south tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed. He was 79. A civil engineer for Raytheon, (also known as Washington Group International) he worked on the 91st floor. Over the course of his career, he managed to design and construct jobs in Guatemala, Venezuela, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and the Philippines. Ulf was an avid mountain climber and had topped some of the world’s most formidable peaks.

Ulf, so many years later and I still owe you so much because you inspired my career, as well as my life. Looking back on those days when you took the time to help a young fellow that was just starting out, we had no idea that the time would be so fleeting. I have lived everyday knowing that I have a thirst for life that was augmented by your own. For work you reserved your genius, but for life you had an incredible zeal both of which I have striven to emulate. Most days remembering you brings me to a happy place. It is only on this day of the year that I am reminded of what could have been.  And then I remember that your’s was a full life, indeed, and that you would have wanted to see everybody else carry on…

“…the 160 employees at construction and engineering firm Washington Group International’s World Trade Center office were brave, and were able to regroup and restore operations in an astonishingly short time. Like Mancini Duffy, they continued to pay their employees in full–but they were not as lucky. Thirteen people in the firm’s 91st-floor office in the south tower perished in the attack. Paul Wagner, who served as vice president and manager of operations at the New York office (he left the company in July), spent the better part of last fall organizing the company’s New York recovery. He confirmed which employees were missing, helped relocate more than 100 coworkers to Washington Group’s New Jersey offices, reestablished contacts with New York clients, worked to replace the office’s lost technology and records, and searched for an appropriate space in Manhattan. Wagner also spent much of the next three months discussing death and long-term disability benefits with the victims and their spouses, and attending their funerals–duties that no one would have thought to include in his job description.

"I’m an engineer by nature," Wagner says, in the sixth-floor offices at Two Penn Plaza that Washington Group opened in April. The 28,000-square-foot office is linear and efficient, with long rectangles of workstations, high dividing walls, and a functional, slightly imposing reception area at the center. The only hint of tragedy is a partition at the middle of the office papered with photographs, obituaries, and inspirational poems about the firm’s September 11 victims. "I had a list of things to do, and I checked them off one at a time," he says. "But the most important thing for the survival of the office was to give people a place to work–not for them to be immediately productive, but to establish routines and let them know they have a job."

Although New York was one of Washington Group’s smaller offices–the $3 billion firm is headquartered in Boise, Idaho, and has nearly 38,000 employees worldwide–it is one of the company’s most vital locations. New York is the world’s most important construction market, spending an estimated $37 billion each year on vertical infrastructure. As with most of the World Trade Center victims, Washington Group received myriad offers of help from industry colleagues. Naik-Prasad, a subcontracting engineering firm on Washington Group’s light-rail project in Bergen County, New Jersey, created space for 12 of the displaced firm’s bridge engineers, refusing to take a dime for their trouble. Other partners and competitors offered computers, workstations, and assistance in finding a new location.

With most of the New York personnel relocated to the group’s 1,000-person office in Princeton, New Jersey, Wagner navigated a stiff New York real estate market for a suitable location. "There were a lot of spaces available," he says. "But the asking prices were final." The Penn Plaza space –significantly smaller than the firm’s 48,000-square-foot offices in the World Trade Center–became vacant in mid-November. Washington Group International moved in in April. Penn Plaza isn’t as spectacular as the World Trade Center, and it doesn’t have the view. But the World Trade Center was gone, and, according to Wagner, there was nothing he or any engineer could have done to save it.

"Certainly our profession is methodical," Wagner says. His former firm designs and constructs railways, dams, power plants, factories, tunnels, roads, defense facilities, and mines. "We can analyze what failed and perhaps understand what we can do to make a building resist longer in a similar crisis. But there was and is nothing any engineer could have done to protect against an attack of that magnitude. Our job is simply to move forward. And you move forward through work which really hasn’t changed."

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