For John Osteraas, more than two decades of engineering expertise came to the fore in the wake of the national tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.
Osteraas, a principal engineer with Exponent Failure Analysis Associates of Menlo Park, CA, deployed to Ground Zero as a lead structures specialist with FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue program and subsequently led an investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Osteraas is one of the world’s leading experts on the performance of structures under extreme loading or stress, and his work with Exponent Failure Analysis played a crucial role in understanding the causes of the collapse and the extent of the damage.
Osteraas and Exponent Failure Analysis also played significant roles in assessing the damage and structural failures resulting from the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, earthquakes in Mexico and California, and the construction collapse of the L’Ambiance Plaza lift-slab building in Bridgeport, CT. Osteraas currently manages a project for the Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering aimed at developing engineering guidelines for the assessment and repair of earthquake damage in wood frame construction.
Osteraas enrolled at UW-Madison in 1971, egged on by a bet from his mother following what he described as a boring junior year in high school. He had an interest in art and anthropology, and soon discovered he had little talent for either subject. He dropped out of college and worked in construction, a field he enjoyed. Family friend Frank Worzala, a professor in the college’s Department of Mining and Materials Engineering, encouraged Osteraas to consider engineering. He re-enrolled at the university, with Professor Worzala’s help landed a part-time job at the Forest Products Laboratory, and quickly fell under the tutelage of noted Civil Engineering Professor Chuck Salmon.
He received his BS in civil engineering from UW-Madison in 1976. Salmon suggested he pursue graduate school, and Osteraas moved on to Stanford University, where he received both his MS (1977) and his PhD (1990) in civil engineering. He joined Exponent Failure Analysis in 1982 after stints as a research engineer for Structural Research, Inc., of Middleton, Engineering Research, Inc., of Madison, and Marshall Erdman and Associates of Madison.
He has published three dozen articles in research journals and engineering publications on his work and research, one of which earned an Outstanding Technical Paper from ASCE. He is a Fellow in the American Society of Civil Engineers, as well as a member of the Structural Engineers Association of California, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, and the Rescue Engineering Council.
Osteraas has received commendations from the state of California’s Office of Emergency Services for his work following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, as well as his work in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He recently was elected Chapter Honor Member of the UW Madison Chapter of Chi Epsilon.