News Stories

Engineering a difference

Norfolk District Public Affairs
Published April 1, 2013
Thumbing through the pages of his chartreuse logbook where he writes down thoughts, project plans and drawings, Capt. Antonio Pazos stops to point out a particular drawing.

It’s a rough sketch diagram of how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and federal and state engineers designed a dewatering plan to remove 400 million gallons of water from the Brooklyn Battery and Queens tunnels after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast Oct. 29, 2012.

Sandy packed a punch, doubling the landfall size of Hurricanes Issac and Irene combined.

Pazos was in the emergency operations center, simultaneously gathering progress reports for 14 projects which included the tunnels, preparing reports for the New York’s emergency operations center and controlling the flow of water.

It was right where a self-identified adrenaline junkie was meant to be.

Picture the Rose Bowl.

The historic California landmark and outdoor athletic arena that seats 90,000 people was the setting for the 1932 and 1948 summer Olympics. The amount of water pumped from the tunnels was enough to fill the Rose Bowl 1 1/2 times.

Engineers, who were under pressure to help restore the major traffic arteries, pumped water from the tunnels from dawn to dusk.

That was just fine for Pazos, who says “extreme” is the philosophy he lives by: the long days and short breaks was nothing new for the nine-year Army veteran.

Pazos, born and raised in Puerto Ordaz, one of Venezuela’s largest cities, started his school days early, usually rushing out the door at 6:45 a.m. and sometimes missing breakfast to make it to Catholic school on time – even though it was only 10 minutes away.

While growing up, the one consistency in Pazos’ life was lunch. It was the main meal of the day and most of the family would be there, sitting at the round wood table and talking about - engineering.   Afterward, it was time to dash out the door and get back to school for his last class.

“I was destined to be an engineer …” Pazos said. “Call it a family tradition.”

In Venezuela, Pazos often listened to his father, a mechanical engineer, and two older brothers talk about engineering when they came back to visit each year. Pazos’ oldest brother, now a lieutenant colonel and mechanical engineer, talked about his travels to Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru and countless U.S. locations as an engineer.

Pazos also remembers time spent with his mother as they puzzled over jigsaw pieces.

The simple act of piecing the cardboard riddle together was a basic act of engineering for Pazos: instead of seeing a photo, a final product, he saw how it was put together.  Puzzles were a step to engineering: when people saw chairs, they see something to sit on – Pazos saw the way the chair was designed and put together, which led to questions: is there is a better way to build it?

“You’ll never meet an engineer who doesn’t want to do a jigsaw puzzle,” he said.

At the age of 5, Pazos was intrigued by the mechanics of how things worked; how to design, build and find solutions, something he attributes to his parents and siblings.

The discussions - the what-if’s, how can I do this better - sparked an interest for the remaining three sons.

Growing up in a tropical paradise, so close to the equator that there is only one season – hot and humid – Pazos always found something to do to feed “the adrenalin monster”- his desire to do new things and visit new places. He played tennis, rollerbladed and often traveled seven hours south to La Gran Sabana, a slice of the second largest national park in Venezuela.

Described as “simply breathtaking,” it’s often a four- or five- day to drive to camping sites where the Pazos’ family shunned motels in favor of camping under the stars and watching the glowing embers as they sat around a campfire.

With his sights set on a civil engineering degree, Pazos moved away from his parents in Venezuela and came to the U.S. in 2002. He completed his senior year at Blacksburg High School while living with family friends in a large home on the outskirts of town.

After high school he fit right in to college life - turning a blank-canvas dorm room into home-sweet-home with pictures, TV, sports equipment and his collection of books. Looking at his tennis racket brings back fond memories of growing up in Venezuela - playing tennis every chance he had.

There’s only one way in and out of Blacksburg and Pazos likes that.  Big-city living, traffic and long lines are not his thing. His preference is a small community with lots to do.

Blacksburg’s skyline is framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains; at sunset the sky is tinted orange and maroon, the school colors of the resident university, Virginia Tech. The streets are lined with bistro tables outside small, quaint shops covered by canopies. Blacksburg is home for 42,620 people; the number almost doubles each fall as 30,000 students fill the apartments and condos near the college.

Despite being thousands of miles away from his parents, Blacksburg was like home: All four brothers went to Virginia Tech and two became engineers.

After four years at Virginia Tech, Pazos graduated and was commissioned into the Army 24 hours later by his brother.

Pazos’ older brother, Rafael, is a mechanical engineer in the Army, and served in Iraq with the Corps’ gulf region south district.  Pazos was there at the same time and their paths crossed from time to time. It was a nice change from being in an armored division, conducting route clearance missions.

“Tony is an excellent Army officer and I think providing the exposure to my career aspirations, travels and experience made an impact,” said Rafael. “I am proud to say that I helped him apply for the Technical Engineer Competency-Development Program.”

Once in the Army, Ranger training fed Pazos’ hunger for thrills. Who else would jump out of a perfectly good airplane or rappel 150-feet down a ragged mountain side?

“[We were] in the field for five or six days, sleeping two to four hours a night and eating twice a day,” Pazos said. “It was like a crawl-walk-run lesson of leadership-skills and about becoming a team.”

Pazos joined the Norfolk District two years ago and has been studying for the professional engineer certification he plans to take in April.  The opportunity for operational experience surfaced when Sandy made landfall last year.

Flood water inundated tunnels, subway stations, streets and homes. People lived in the dark for weeks as electrical outages plagued the area. The Corps and other agencies in the area worked to help those in need, to clear the World Trade Center construction site and to repair water treatment plants.

“I asked Tony to go to New York because he was the right fit for the job,” said Col. Paul Olsen, commander of the Norfolk district. “Engineering and leader development is founded on three pillars: leadership, advanced civilian education, and ‘master apprentice’ opportunities.  He has those qualities, and this was an opportunity to polish those skills.”

Pazos, known to his friends as “extreme sports-fanatic Tony,” spends his spare weekends and evenings watching a lot of sports on TV. During the weekends, he watches college or NFL football games or a soccer match, cheering and being a loud fan.  He also tries to go on one snowboarding trip each year.

“My energy level and aspirations are to live each day as if it were my last,” he said.

That’s not to say Pazos doesn’t enjoy relaxing.

At the end of the day, Pazos trades in his Army combat uniform and slips into a pair of comfortable jeans, a T-shirt and flip flops. He finds solace sitting on his deck overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, as the sky changes to shades of orange and maroon - colors that remind him of the college he went to and the path he chose.

It reminds him of the college he went to and the career path he chose.

It’s his “downtime.”

“The only thing better than that sunset is eating a three-inch-thick grilled-to-perfection porterhouse steak, medium rare, with my favorite book, Ender’s Shadow, from the series Ender’s Game, sitting on the table next to my chair,” he said.