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'Titanic' show spotlights engineers

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 25 - March 27, 1997

Three Virginia Tech engineering alumni and a current student have helped the Discovery Channel address some intriguing questions about the RMS Titanic's tragic sinking on April 15, 1912.

Discovery will air "Titanic, Anatomy of a Disaster" on April 13 to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the catastrophe.

More than 1,500 lives were lost when the "unsinkable" ship went down after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic during its maiden voyage. The wreckage was found in 1985 about 12,000 feet below the surface. The 882-foot-long ship, laying on the ocean floor under 5,300 pounds per square-inch of water pressure, had broken into two pieces.

In 1996, an expedition to the wreckage was launched by Discovery, RMS Titanic Inc., and the Marine Forensic Panel of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. The first documentary from the expedition, "Titanic: The Investigation Begins," was aired on the Discovery Channel in October 1996.

The documentary to be shown in April will be an engineering and scientific study of, among other things, how and why the ship sank and broke apart, says William H. Garzke Jr., chairman of the Marine Forensic Panel and a staff naval architect in the Arlington, Va., office of Gibbs & Cox. Garzke participated in the 1996 expedition.

Using information from the expedition and some of the original drawings of the ship, three engineers at Gibbs & Cox--all Virginia Tech alumni--conducted a stress analysis of the Titanic's hull for the documentary.

James Belshan, a junior engineer who graduated from Tech in 1995 with a degree in aerospace and ocean engineering (AOE), worked with Christopher Geiman, an undergraduate student at Tech who worked as a cooperative education student for Gibbs & Cox in 1996, to construct a computer model of the ship.

Belshan and Geiman built the computer model to analyze stresses acting within the ship's hull, both before and after the collision with the iceberg.

Belshan and Linda Constantine, another Gibbs & Cox junior engineer who received her B.S. from AOE in 1993 and her M.S. in ocean engineering in 1995, modified the computer model to provide input to the documentary's producer, Gregory Andorfer.

David Wood, manager of the Gibbs & Cox Structures Department and a 1985 Tech AOE graduate, oversaw the modeling and stress analysis.

The stress analysis, Constantine says, helps explain why the Titanic broke up into three pieces--how, for example, significant flooding in the forward part of the ship eventually led to catastrophic failure of the hull.