When I photographed Summer Steele in her La Mesa home last week, she already knew who I should to photograph next.

She told me that her husband’s business partner, Mark Van Bibber, was simply an amazing person.

She described the structural engineer as someone with a zest for life and a hard-working attitude. She insisted that I’d be fascinated to talk to him.

Van Bibber grew up in San Diego. In 1994, when he was just starting college, he was almost completely paralyzed in a car accident.

I chatted with Van Bibber and photographed him on the porch of his La Mesa office. After the interview, I asked him a number of questions that will lead me to the next installation of this project.

Name: Mark Van Bibber

Age: 33

Occupation: Structural Engineer

Part of town: El Cajon

How’d you get into this field?

It started off pretty early on. I wanted to do either architecture or engineering. And a family friend was a structural engineer. I met with him, talked with him about it. He told me what courses to take and what direction to go with that. So, that’s what I did.

So it’s always been something you’ve been into?

Yeah, when I was young I was always building tree forts in the backyard. So, I’ve just always liked putting stuff together.

How is building a tree fort like building a building?

Well, recently I did just build a tree house. Sort of. Kind of. For the Girl Scouts, down at the Balboa campus. So, now I just get to tell people how to build it rather than build it myself.

But how do those skills transfer from the kid who builds the tree house?

I think they call it visual-spatial skills. Seeing how something goes together in your mind. That’s what I grew up doing — playing with toys, putting them together and making buildings.

What are the best building toys? Legos?

That’s a good question. I wouldn’t know how to answer that one.

Lincoln Logs?

I enjoyed the Lincoln Logs. I did. I had these little bricks that I don’t even know where they came from that I enjoyed a bit more. And of course, Erector sets are always good.

Right, so that was you as a kid?

For a while, yeah. But I did sports. When I was younger my mother got us into roller-skating. So I did that for a few years. And then when she gave us the choice of whether we wanted to continue that or not, I chose to not. And I moved on to playing football and volleyball.

So tell me about your job on a day-to-day basis. What are you doing?

Structural engineering (laughs).

Do go on.

Hard to kind of sum up exactly what we do. But more or less we’re given a design by an architect and we go through the process of telling the contractors how to build it through construction drawings.

OK. Could you tell me how you ended up in a wheelchair?

Sure. I was in a van with five of my friends coming home from a concert and I was sleeping on the floor. And a drunk driver got into an accident on the freeway. The underside of his carriage was facing traffic. There was no way to see it. The driver of my car ran into it and I just slid forward, hit my head on the engine block and cracked my spinal cord.

How long ago was that?


OK, so that was when you graduated high school.

That was three weeks into college.

Now Summer told me you go and do programs at various schools.

It’s been a while since I have. But they used to ask me to come out and do the Every 15 Minutes program — the Highway Patrol. It’s basically a program where they go to high schools and tell students the dangers of alcohol and other illegal drugs — especially when driving.

Is that something you enjoyed doing?

It was interesting. It wasn’t natural. I’m not a natural speaker. The whole point is basically scaring them into not drinking.

So what do you enjoy doing these days apart from making sure buildings don’t fall over?

Outside of work has become limited recently since there’s a lot of work for us right now but I took up scuba diving a couple of years ago — so that was really fun. If I can get out and do a hike somewhere, I do that.

How do you do scuba diving? How does that work?

Strap the gear on, they throw you in and breathe.

Basically there’s just someone who goes down with me and drags me around with them. They control my buoyancy and I just go along for the ride.

That would terrify me. What do you enjoy about it?

It’s very freeing to me. It’s a very calm and quiet place. Really the only thing you hear is yourself breathing. You get to watch creation go by and it’s just kind of a whole otherworldly environment.

— Interview conducted and edited by SAM HODGSON

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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