Bob Bea, the nation's foremost forensic engineer, is the guy to call when levees break or oil rigs explode.
Credit: Photograph by Robyn Twomey

It takes a person who thinks in a weird way to figure out how things fail," Bea admits cheerfully. His goal is to identify the many small mistakes that compound into large disasters, learn from them, try to predict them, and avoid repeating them. While the task of design, building, or maintenance engineers is self-explanatory, the work of a forensic engineer is more of a dark art, akin to being a detective. "You examine the dirt, the steel, the concrete, the water, to find out what really happened," Bea says. "And, crucially, you talk to the people. It's the only way to find out who did what, when. It's chillingly fascinating."

When Bea talks about risk, his eyes brighten. From the age of 14, when he worked construction jobs in Florida, he has been intimate with the subject. After training in the Army Corps of Engineers, where he built levees to drain the Okefenokee Swamp, Bea joined Shell Oil as a roughneck on an offshore rig. Months into the job, one of Bea's colleagues lost part of his face and another lost three fingers in accidents. When Bea was ordered to replace the man who had lost his fingers, he says, "They just sent me up the derrick, 100 feet in the air, and told me to keep my head out of my ass – or I'd probably lose it. Terror is a fine instructor."

Bea undertook his first forensic investigation in 1961, when Shell tasked him to investigate the sinking of Texas Tower 4 (TT4), a U.S. Navy radar platform that disappeared off New York with 28 crew members. Shell was moving its rigs deeper offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and wanted to know what had gone wrong. The answer: "TT4 was a terrible design," Bea recalls. "It had a big X-brace that caught both the wind and the waves. It was an accident waiting to happen." Bea's report was so thorough, he was asked to testify before Congress.

By the time Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in 1965, Bea had been promoted to manager of Shell's Offshore Technology Development Group, where he was in charge of the company's Gulf oil platforms. His rigs survived Betsy's 140 mph winds and tanker-size waves. But the levees ringing the city failed, and the nation suffered its first "billion-dollar hurricane." Bea's house in New Orleans, where he was then living, flooded, and he and his family "evacuated vertically" into his office building, before fleeing to Houston. It was a defining experience, one that seems to have instilled a righteous anger in him to "make damn sure this never happens again."

Bea stayed with Shell for 16 years, working from the Great Barrier Reef to Arctic ice floes and in executive suites from London to the Hague to Manhattan. In his spare time, he earned a master's degree in engineering from the University of Florida and an MBA from Harvard. Chafing in the corporate "velvet coffin," he quit Shell in 1976, founded and sold two engineering firms, and went to Tulane to learn how to construct buildings that could withstand a nuclear blast. In 1989, he applied to the engineering Ph.D. program at Berkeley on a whim. While Bea didn't have the required course work, the school was so impressed by his résumé that it hired him as a professor.

At Berkeley, Bea met Karlene Roberts, a research psychologist studying human factors and high-reliability organizations, essentially working on the same problems from different angles. By necessity, their work is interdisciplinary, combining engineering, business management, and social science. Ultimately, their goal is not only to improve the way airliners, oil refineries, nuclear plants, and other engineered structures are built and operated, but also to create a design process that takes human fallibility into account and allows us to safely operate complex systems over the long term. But they have encountered resistance from academics and engineers who prefer to maintain specialized "silos" rather than encourage cross-pollination among disciplines. "Learning to be multidisciplinary takes a long time and a lot of money," Roberts explains. "People from different specialties don't speak the same language at first. They have to be trained, and that's difficult."

In trying to nudge his conservative profession forward, Bea has helped to develop new risk-management strategies, particularly an interactive system that stresses the assessment and management of risk in real time. In studying the way pediatric emergency teams coordinate to keep babies alive, for example, they found that successful teams are fluid, shifting from highly structured to loosely structured groups during a crisis. Free-flowing communication is paramount. Hierarchies melt away, team members continually update their diagnoses, and everyone supports the people with the best skills for the task at hand. "They search for what answer is right, not who is right," Bea says admiringly.