Obituary: Michael G. Zabetakis / Renowned explosives expert

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Michael G. Zabetakis of Mt. Lebanon, who was the son of a coal miner, used his degrees in math and science to help make mines safer places to work.

His area of specialization was explosives, and his expertise was sought by many companies and agencies, including NASA, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of the Interior

Mr. Zabetakis, 80, died Friday in the Country Meadows Nursing Home in Bridgeville.

He grew up near Burgettstown, Washington County, where his father worked in the mines. He received a scholarship to Washington & Jefferson College when he came up with a solution to a math problem that had not been solved despite years of efforts by others, according to Andrew Pyros, a brother-in-law of Mr. Zabetakis.

Mr. Zabetakis earned his bachelor's degree at Washington & Jefferson, and was only 19 when he earned his master's degree. He earned his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.

He began his career at the U.S. Bureau of Mines, a part of the Department of Interior, and rose to the rank of research director. While working there, he authored 80 scientific articles and a book, "Safety in Cryogenics."

In Who's Who of Science, he was recognized as a world expert on combustible gases and liquids.

In 1963, the Coast Guard sought his help in the search for a tanker, the Marine Sulphur Queen, which disappeared with its 39 crew members in the Bermuda Triangle. The tanker was hauling molten sulphur.

A New York Times article noted that Mr. Zabetakis was consulted, and he reported that impurities in the sulphur could have caused an explosion, but it would have been a relatively mild explosion. The tanker and crew were never found, though life vests and other debris from the ship were discovered floating in the ocean.

Pyros said the advice of his brother-in-law was frequently sought.

"One time we were at a party at his Mt. Lebanon house. The phone rang and it was NASA. They were having some kind of problem with a space launch," he said.

No one learned the nature of the problem because Mr. Zabetakis simply went back to having everyday conversations with his guests, Pyros said.

Mr. Zabetakis received many awards, including the Meritorious Service Award of the Department of Interior and the Distinguished Service Award from Washington & Jefferson as the chairman of the math department.

Mr. Zabetakis and Rebecca, his wife of 58 years, raised their two children in Mt. Lebanon. The couple moved to West Virginia in the 1970s when U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd tapped him to help establish the National Mine Safety Academy in Beckley.

Other jobs held during his career were president of the Monroeville facility of Bituminous Coal Research, assistant dean of engineering at Pitt, and chairman of the math department at Washington & Jefferson.

He served as a Navy officer in World War II.

Survivors in addition to his wife include a daughter, Victoria Ritter of Arlington, Texas; a son, Paul, of Newport, R.I.; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Friends will be received today from 10 to 11 a.m. at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church, 123 Gilkeson Road, Mt. Lebanon. Services will be held there at 11 a.m. Interment will be in Jefferson Memorial Park.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Beinhauer Mortuary, 2828 Washington Road, Peters.


Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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