Taking a Life
The mid-project death of an iconic Ethiopian engineer raises questions—and doubt.
By Henry Petroski
Engineer Semegnew Bekele was managing construction of the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest infrastructure project to date. It was falling behind schedule, but that was to be expected for such a large enterprise. The hydroelectric dam was designed to generate power equivalent to that of six nuclear plants, and it would make Ethiopia Africa’s largest exporter of electricity.
Last July, the engineer was found slumped over in his automobile, which was parked with its engine running near the center of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. He had suffered a fatal gunshot wound behind the right ear. A handgun with his fingerprints was found in the car, and the doors of the vehicle were all locked from the inside. Citing the police chief, the BBC reported that Simegnew “had left messages for his secretary and child explaining that he might be going away for a while.” Authorities declared the death a suicide.
Whatever an engineer’s mental state, suicide seems least likely in the midst of a major project. Engineers know that all projects, especially mega ones, are subject to technical, fiscal, and political complications, presenting challenges for their engineers and managers alike. Engineers are trained to rise to the occasion and devise ways to overcome obstacles.
A recent American project that arguably was comparable to the Ethiopian dam was the East Bay span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. It was plagued with cost overruns, schedule slippages, and sundry scandals. I toured the construction site when it was already mired in controversy. The engineer guiding me through the innards of the viaduct’s earthquake-proof box girders showed no sign of discouragement or defeat. He and his colleagues knew they had to overcome adversity. Today, with the signature span completed—and enshrined in the logo of the Oakland-based Golden State Warriors pro basketball team—the bridge is challenging the Golden Gate as a symbol of the area.
Historically, even the colossal failure of a great project did not drive its responsible engineer to suicide. Three landmark failures of record setting-bridges—the Tay, the Quebec, and the Tacoma Narrows—proved to be great embarrassments to their engineers: Thomas Bouch, Theodore Cooper, and Leon Moisseiff, respectively. Each of these engineers was in or near the twilight of his career, and each one’s magnum opus turned out to be an unforgettable mistake. All passed away of natural causes within 10 months to 12 years of the event, perhaps comforted by thoughts of all their successful projects.
Semegnew was only 53 when he died, but he already had accomplished much by way of significant projects. Indeed, it was his past performance that earned him the lead position he held with the Renaissance Dam project. And in that position he was responsible not only for overseeing the technical aspects of construction but also for acting as the dam’s spokesman and advocate. The megadam is controversial in the water-stressed North African region, with Egypt and Sudan worried that it will strain their water supplies. On the day of his death he was in Addis Ababa to hold a news conference dealing with questions of delays in project milestones. Allegations of mismanagement and corruption associated with the project were expected to be raised. But the engineer should have been up to dealing with such challenges.
According to the Engineering News-Record, Semegnew was a “national icon.” In Ethiopia, he was hailed as a hero by the public at large, and his burial with national honors at Holy Trinity Cathedral reportedly attracted a crowd of thousands. Public sentiment in Ethiopia was that Semegnew was murdered. No evidence has emerged publicly to support that theory; the police would only reiterate that the investigation was continuing. Still, I find it difficult to imagine that an engineer like Semegnew, in the prime of his career and working on his magnum opus, would take his own life.
Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of history at Duke. His latest book is The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski