CASPER, Wyo. — Michael Barker’s perspective on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is much more personal than that of most Americans. Within hours after the collapse of the twin towers, he was on a rescue mission at ground zero.
The University of Wyoming civil engineering professor recalls the text messages he received on Sept. 11, which notified him that the World Trade Center had been struck by two planes. Barker had been trained to save lives at disaster sites, but he never envisioned being called to serve following one of the most catastrophic moments in United States history.
“It was utter devastation, like those cities that were bombed out in World War II, just incredible,” Barker said. “It was very emotional — something I’ll never forget.”
Barker’s journey to ground zero started in 1992 when, as a faculty member at the University of Missouri, he joined the Missouri Search and Rescue Task Force in Columbia. His expertise in structures continued to be valuable when an official Federal Emergency Management Administration team was formed in 1996.
The team was deployed to the World Trade Center site for nine days to perform search and rescue efforts and other operations. The engineers were asked to help operations personnel enter collapsed buildings while managing risks and doing whatever else they could to assist with the rescue mission.
Barker was often the first member of the team to enter the damaged buildings. His expertise proved invaluable because he could assess the structural integrity of the damaged structures and areas of weakness in the rubble — knowledge that was critical to entering and exiting safely.
“The risks were high,” he said. “We had to determine where it was safest to go in to start searching, how long we would be in dangerous areas and how to mitigate risk to our team.”
After coming to UW in 2003, Barker was invited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to join its disaster response efforts. Five days after Hurricane Katrina, Barker received a call to serve with a specialty team for the federal government. The team worked to repair bridges, evaluate the condition of marinas, ensure safe water rescue operations and inspect damaged schools for structural soundness.
Lorrie McNamee and Kali McCrackin of Laramie and Drew Shutts of Casper are students in Associate Professor Cindy Price’s public relations class at the University of Wyoming.