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Engineering his path in life

He has seen earthquakes and wars, but for Said Iravani, education has always been his focus.

By JOHN BALZ, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


TEMPLE TERRACE -- Said Iravani thanks engineering for his professional success and for literally saving his life.

In 1990, while driving through the terraced rice fields and jagged mountainside of Iran's Gilan province, Iravani and a friend passed through a tunnel with pavement as smooth as ice. Being engineers, the two argued over whether the road was asphalt or concrete. The debate became so intense that they stopped the car and knelt, touching and scratching it.

As they left the tunnel they came upon a "fog of dust" and boulders the size of their car littering the ground. It was an earthquake, the worst recorded disaster in Iran's history, registering 7.7 on the Richter scale. Nearly 50,000 people died and 500,000 were left homeless in the nighttime shake.

But underground tunnels move with the earth during an earthquake. Anyone inside of one is likely to emerge unhurt and oblivious to the destruction above ground, just as Iravani was.

A connoisseur of fine cigars and cognac, and a soon-to-be-homeowner in Heritage Isles, Iravani has witnessed the Iranian revolution and endured the horror of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. He published a doctoral thesis on soil composition, which is roughly the size of an encyclopedia and definitely not for the casual reader.

Iravani remembers gathering with his family in a bedroom and waiting for a 2 p.m. radio newscast as Saddam Hussein launched his first scud missile attacks on Iran's airfields. Many of Iravani's university classes were moved to a 20-story Hilton hotel because it could withstand the blasts better than the smaller one-and-two story campus buildings. After awhile, he slept through the explosions.

"I don't enjoy watching war or action movies anymore because I've seen so many of them in real life," he said.

Born in Hamedan, a city of 500,000 that was once the capital of the Median empire, Iravani grew up cycling, hiking and studying.

"Education always was the first priority in my family," he said.

In Iran, he said, high school students take a national entrance exam and attend a certain university based on their score. Iravani finished fifth in his district of 25,000 students and enrolled in the civil engineering program at Sharif University of Technology, which was the sister school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before MIT cuts its ties after the 1980 hostage crisis.

Even as a child Iravani knew he would leave Iran. He considers himself an "Iranian-Canadian-American," since he moved to Canada in 1991 for graduate work at the University of Alberta.

After more than two years in Florida working for GeoSyntec Consultants as a civil engineer, he remains a Canadian citizen. He hopes to be naturalized within five years.

Iravani is a Shi'a Muslim but he says he hasn't been in a mosque in 10 years. As an avid student of the world's great philosophers, he considers himself more spiritual than religious, trying to incorporate both logic and passion into his life.

Do you have a neighbor who belongs in the newspaper? Please let us know. We're looking for people who have done remarkable things, but might not otherwise be featured in our news pages. Please send your idea -- including where the person lives -- to sokol@sptimes.com.

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