Life in the breakdown lane: Cliff Mumm slides audience to edge of seats

‘From 9/11 to Iraq to Katrina, when the world fell apart he was the man on speed dial’

So many people showed up they stood in the book aisles of a crowded county library Friday night to hear Rappahannock resident Cliff Mumm detail his most extraordinary and challenging career, one that few people would care to stomach.

After all, short of the London Bridge falling down, who wants to be responsible for Big Ben toppling over?

“When the world fell apart Cliff Mumm was the man on speed dial,” described RAAC’s “Second Friday” moderator Ed Dolnick in his introduction of the guest speaker. “Cliff Mumm is a man of unusual expertise. For most of us a construction project might be putting up a tool shed. . . . Cliff works on a different scale. For several decades he worked for the engineering giant Bechtel in charge of their biggest and most difficult and most complicated projects around the world . . .

Cliff Mumm recalls his four decades with the Bechtel Corporation, when he was in charge of rebuilding Manhattan after Sept. 11, Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. By John McCaslin

“He was in charge of rebuilding Manhattan after 9/11, coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, trying to rebuild Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam, giant projects to do with the Channel Tunnel between England and France [and] extending the London subway system [that] had a strict deadline . . . I believe I’m safe in saying that Cliff’s the only graduate of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology who is also [awarded] Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire!”

Which brings us back to Big Ben, albeit given Mumm’s demanding 40 years with the Bechtel Corporation — he can’t recall one remote place in the world he hasn’t been — London’s “Great Bell” tower ranks far down the list of his career concerns.

“When we went to dig Westminster [subway station], which was near Big Ben,” began Mumm, “it was a huge deal because some member of Parliament said that we were probably going to ‘tip’ Big Ben. He had some engineering background, surveying or something. So we had to put laser sensors to make sure that Big Ben [wasn’t tipping] and we had to report back to Parliament every day, every morning, if Big Ben had moved. Of course it hadn’t.”

The construction engineer’s extensive underground British projects weren’t nearly his most daunting deployments — even if he had to crisscross the River Thames four times, not to mention that at 32 miles the undersea Channel Tunnel is the longest in the world, reaching 132 feet below the surface.

Consider his flights into war torn Iraq aboard C-130 military aircraft.

“They were shooting at these C-130s with these SAM [surface-to-air] missiles,” Mumm recalled, which activated countermeasure decoy flares visible through the plane’s upper windows. “And it lit up the inside as you can imagine — you’re in the middle of a fireworks display. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it.’ And of course we were sitting on our body armor because people would shoot up and we’d [be afraid to] get hit in the butt.”

Ground travel through the terrorist plagued country was no safer for Mumm’s team of engineers and support personnel, who when not dousing burning oil fields were trying to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure: roads, bridges, buildings, schools, ports; sewer, water, and electrical.

“Our task was how to stay safe and still do what we had to do,” he explained, adding that at one point his team built their own armored vehicles. “Whenever we did sorties out we had to go with two cars, and so if something happened, which did frequently, we had to get people out of the front car that got hit, because they’d blow up the first car, stop it dead, and then come out shooting at you.”

Through Mumm, whose office was in Baghdad, Reston, Va.-based Bechtel, supported by a pair of contracts worth $2.3 billion, hired 12,000 Iraqis in various capacities, including more highly skilled engineers who often preferred to keep their employment with the U.S. company secret. With conditions in Iraq never stabilizing, Mumm’s teams endured killings and kidnappings — all told 101 casualties and 51 deaths.

Asked by an audience member how frightened he was during the deployment, Mumm replied the difficult tasks at hand mostly kept his mind elsewhere. Although he did recall coming under fire once when entering Iraq from Kuwait, not that he knew what had hit him: “It happened so fast, the car got sprayed from both sides. And I’m in the back seat and security’s up front. After it happened, I said, ‘What was that?’ And they’d sped up and said, ‘What do you think it was?’”

Twenty-four hours after the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Mumm was summoned to New York City.

“What I remember when I got there, and this occurred throughout my career whenever you come upon an act of physical violence like that,” he said, “people when you go to look at it they start whispering, they drop into this somber voice. There’s a reverence for that kind of violence.”

In the weeks and months that followed there were discoveries of body parts, buttons, anything that could help loved ones identify victims. Whatever was recovered was placed in body bags, followed by hushed silence. As a bagpiper played mournfully, and first responders stood to salute, the remains, however small, were ceremoniously lifted from Ground Zero.

Rappahannock resident Cliff Mumm speaks to audience members after his “Second Friday” talk detailing his challenging career that more often than not put him in harm’s way. By John McC

“Even now when I think about it I get teary eyed,” Mumm told the audience.

The Bechtel engineer, who retired in 2013 as a senior vice president, sprinkled several humorous tales into the more tragic ones. There was the time he oversaw recovery efforts in Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, including helping FEMA transport and install temporary trailers in the hardest hit areas.

“We taught people how to operate a trailer and then we went back and checked on them,” Mumm remembered. “The second trailer that we put in we went back and the guy had sold the trailer and they were using it as a house of ill repute!”

Mumm said there were “many lessons learned” during his storied career that he passes along today as a consultant.

“One . . . was to teach ethics all the time,” he said, and “condense the mission . . . because there is so much to do. So you have to consolidate the mission, make it short, and then drive yourself hoarse talking to people . . . so everybody knows what the mission is.

“Another thing . . . you can never expect what will happen . . . but if you can keep all [who are involved] in the mix, and make approaching the project less daunting, then it sort of works. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it sort of works better.”

“The most important lesson is the Lily Tomlin lesson,” Mumm concluded with a grin. “Her old saying was, ‘We’re all in this alone.’”

About John McCaslin 447 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at