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Key Film Team Members

The Late: Dr. Thomas E. Corts, Ph.D

Dr. Corts was the retired and beloved 17th president of Samford University in Birmingham, AL serving from 1983-2006. He had so many life achievements that there are too many to list so we won’t even try.  One person described him as a man that “created and seized moments that were life altering for countless individuals, worldwide.” He was the major drive behind the research, editing and publishing of a book about the tragedy entitled: “Bliss & Tragedy.”  He was born in Terre Haute, Ind. but raised in Ashtabula, Ohio. This is also where he met and married his wife Marla Haas Corts. Dr. Corts passed away February, 2009 and this film is dedicated to his memory. He had always hoped a film about this story could be made someday, so this is his dream and vision.

Marla Hass Corts: Former First Lady of Samford University (23 Years)

& Civic Leader

Marla is the wife of the late Dr. Thomas Corts and former first Lady of Samford University, until her husband retired in 2006.  She worked with her husband on a number of research projects including the Ashtabula train disaster. Marla and her husband were high school sweethearts while attending school in Ashtabula, Ohio and were familiar with the story as local lore. Marla made a special trip from Birmingham, Alabama to Ashtabula, Ohio in the Spring of 2012 to turn over all the paperwork and research she had kept about the Ashtabula disaster to Len & Patti Brown, who used much of it to produce the script for Engineering Tragedy. Thank you Marla for everything!


Marla’s “paperwork and research” represented trips to Britain (research and seminars there), to the P.P. Bliss Museum in Rome, PA; to research in Chicago on several occasions - Including Moody Bible Institute; and in all various places in Ashtabula County to make possible this documentary. In 2002 Dr. Corts was the general chairman in planning a three day celebration that resulted in two years of celebration and discovery of this important time in railroad and evangelical music history. Pastor Virgil Reeve, then pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ashtabula served as the “Local Arrangements Chair” in Ashtabula for both events.

Tom New - President & CEO for WQLN (PBS)

Tom is the President & CEO for WQLN, in Erie, PA, which is our presenting station to PBS.  He brings to the team over 35 years in the broadcast industry from Jet Broadcasting Co., ABC and PBS. Tom is the Executive Producer of Outdoor Family Adventures, a weekly television series that featured everyday families pushing their personal limits by skiing, backpacking, whitewater rafting, and more. He was also the executive producer of Pennsylvania Breweries, a travelogue which was nationally syndicated on the American Public Television network. He is professionally experienced in management, community engagement, volunteer relations, government affairs, corporate culture, fundraising and grant writing.

Len Brown - Executive Producer & Director

Len Brown is the Executive Producer and owner of Beacon Productions. Len has put together an incredibly strong, Emmy Award winning team of professionals who help him create a variety of programs.


Len has twenty-nine years of experience in all aspects of video production from working behind the camera to the final phases of post production. He has produced and worked on a number of programs for cable television, including his latest release, “Ships of the Great Lakes.” Len is currently editing "Airships: A New Journey Begins." He spent over a year filming the build of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Companies new Zeppelin airship, Wingfoot-One, where he will not only show the building process from beginning to end, but will weave in the history of Airships.


In addition to producing and directing, he spent time teaching video production as an adjunct instructor at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Len was also a videographer and reporter for WSBT- CBS and WNDU-NBC South Bend, Indiana and has worked as a cameraman on the set of many national television productions including the NFL Network.


Len is a member of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE), the Lower Great Lakes Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, The International Documentary Association in Los Angeles, CA., as well as a number of historical societies around the country.

Patti Brown - Producer & Writer

Patti is a Producer and co-owner of Beacon Productions and writer of the script for this production. She has taken ten years of research done by local historians and the late Dr. Thomas Corts and crafted a historically accurate and compelling script that “jumps off the page.” After studying and researching the complex engineering aspects of the bridge, she has been able to write a script in such a way that the average person can understand. Patti is also a scholar and former university professor. After five years of classroom teaching, she moved into online learning and began designing online college-level courses for fellow instructors. She is the published author of the book, Divine Possibilities and is currently writing her second book. Patti is also responsible for writing and/or editing a number of scripts including House Call Vets, Airships: A New Journey Begins, Icebreakers: The Frozen Inland Seas and many more. She is currently president of a local club of Toastmasters International, a public speaking organization with national competitions and has won a number of first place awards in both regional and divisional competitions with her speaking abilities. She is currently working with Len on a number of projects for national broadcast and she supervises all online content and educational resources for Beacon Productions.

Gary Tabor - Producer & Prop Master

Gary is the prop master for the film and has collected every prop we need and more. If he can’t find it he can build it in his wonderful woodworking shop. Many of the props he found are real antiques from the time period! Gary is one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met and always ready to help whenever or wherever he is needed, even being our boom man on a few occasions. Gary is the owner of “Tabor’s Terrific Toy Museum” with a collection of beautiful toys from the past that still spark the imagination and bring back the childhood of anyone who visits. Gary has used his talents and contacts as an avid antique collector to acquire the props we need for this film and he’s always looking for more. Gary seems to have talents or know how in a number of occupations to include: robotics engineering, farming, carpentry, model building, mechanics, and artifact finding. We are still discovering things Gary can do and he always seems to surprise us.


Matt McComb - Vissual Effects (VFX)

Matt is a 3-D animator extraordinaire and owner of IronFuzz Design. He will be working with Glenn Allen of BrainStorm Digital doing many animations and set extentions for this project. If you need a Hollywood quality animation of meteors destroying a city or a bridge collapsing with a train on it, Matt is your guy. Matt started his career as a media specialist at G2 Media Group in Canton, OH, working with national clients to produce branding and marketing material. Luckily, clients keep asking for "bigger and better,"  so the web and print designs quickly moved on to producing 3D and motion graphics. In 2008, he took his industry experience into the classroom as an instructor at Stark State College in North Canton, Ohio teaching 3D graphics and animation. Matt has since moved on to start his own company. In his spare time, Matt enjoys developing video games, creating animated films, and designing cars.



Bob Pelton - Prop Master, Carpenter, Location Scout and PA

Bob is probably one of the most valuable people who works on set and behind the scenes. This production would not have been easy or as good without his skills and talent. He has built and helped build many of the props we use on location. Including train rails and an I-Beam for the bridge construction scenes. He and Gary also built a huge green-screen wall for both indoor and outdoor film sets. Plus, he built a replica of the broken angle block, which caused the collapse of the bridge, and he took the lead on building 12 coffins for the funeral scene we filmed in Kinsman. 

He has also helped scout locations, find period props, served as a production assistant on set, hauled props all over the place in his truck, and has done many other things that are too numerous to list or remember. 


Bob has come to just about every film location and helps keep things moving smoothly everywhere he goes.  Every time the director (Len Brown) has a need for something strange or seemingly impossible to build or create, Bob calmly says he will take care of it and somehow pulls it off with his partner in crime, Producer & Prop Master Gary Tabor.  Bob is truly this production's secret weapon. Meet the real "Bob, the Builder"!


Dick Mullen - Asst. Prop Master & Model Builder

Dick is a good friend of Gary Tabor and is a huge collector of antiques with a skew towards railroad memorabilia. Richard also owns the only fully complete collection of antique LS & MS railroad lanterns in the world. He has a replica of every lantern ever used by this railroad along with a number of other LS & MS antiques.  Dick seems to be a jack-of-all-trades and is able to build just about anything. He’s even considered to be a very good drone pilot! Of all the hobbies he has, model building seems to be one of his favorites. The detail he puts into each one to make them look real is truly impressive.

David Simmons - Editor of Timeline Magazine, Ohio Historical Society

David is a historian and editor with the Ohio Historical Society and has written extensively on historical bridges including the Ashtabula railroad bridge. He has contributed in many ways to this project as a researcher and expert. He has also helped Len Brown make a number of connections within the historical bridge community and in the Ohio Historical Society, helping to bring this project together. David has also helped write sections of our grant and script. Since David is intimately familiar with the Ashtabula Disaster, he has also served as our script editor to ensure its historical accuracy.  David holds a Masters Degree in American History from Miami University.


Prof. Kevin Kern, Ph.D - Historian

As an expert on Ohio History, Dr. Kern has been able to provide us with a number of humanities arguments that offer unique "pull-back moments" that help show the national importains of the Ashtabula disaster story.  He has also appeared on two History Channel shows "How the States Got Their Shapes," Ohio Segment (2011) and "The States" television series (2007). Dr. Kern is also the co-author of the first new textbook on Ohio History in half a century: Ohio: A History of the Buckeye State (Wiley Publishing, August 2013).


While Ohio History is an important focus of Kevin Kern’s work, he also specializes in the history of the social sciences in the late 19th/early 20th century, particularly the development of the American Anthropology.  His current research deals with the role of the American physical anthropological community in the eugenics movement and the long-term consequences of this relationship.  Having produced a biography of T. Wingate Todd (a major early 20th century figure in physical anthropology), Kern is now working on a book on the Galton Society, an erstwhile physical anthropology organization that also served as an intellectual brain trust of the U.S. eugenics movement.  He also continues to serve as co-founder and editor of The Northeast Ohio Journal of History. Dr. Kern currently works as an Associate Professor at the University of Akron.


Prof. Gregory Wilson, Ph.D - Historian

Dr. Gregory Wilson maintains research and teaching interests in modern United States history, especially political economy, public history, environmental history, Ohio history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. He has provided insight into both the humanities concepts and the national influence the Ashtabula Disaster had on the nation during the industrial revolution. Along with various articles and public history projects, he is the author of Communities Left Behind: The Area Redevelopment Administration, 1945 – 1965 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009) and the co-author of Ohio: A History of the Buckeye State and Above the Shots: The Kent State Shootings in History and Memory. He is also the co-author and content advisor for three Teaching American History grants funded by the Department of Education; combined total over $3 million. Dr. Wilson currently works as an Associate Profssor of History at the University of Akron. Dr. Wilson is also the co-author of the first new textbook on Ohio History in half a century: Ohio: A History of the Buckeye State (Wiley Publishing, August 2013).

Prof. Gladys Haddad, Ph.D - Historian

Dr. Haddad is professor of American Studies at Case Western Reserve University. She is also the founder and director of the Western Reserve Studies Symposium. A historian and regionalist, her scholarship is centered in Ohio’s Western Reserve. She has published on the history, literature and art of the region. Her most recent book is a biography entitled Flora Stone Mather: Daughter of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue and Ohio’s Western Reserve. Dr. Haddad is very familiar with the history of Amasa Stone and his family. Flora Stone Mather was the daughter of Amasa Stone, the main character in our documentary. Dr. Haddad is also considered the “Dian Rehm” of the Western Reserve, and hosts a radio program entitled Regionally Speaking, which airs on the Universities radio station WRUW 91.1 FM. Besides a number of publications she is also the writer/producer of three documentaries: Samuel Mather: Vision Leadership, Generosity; Samuel and Flora Stone Mather: Partners in Philanthropy and Flora Stone Mather: A Legacy of Stewardship.

Prof. John Grabowski, Ph.D - Historian

Dr. Grabowski’s interests and research span the fields of public and academic history. He specializes in the areas of immigration and ethnicity; local (Cleveland) urban history; and public history, particularly the fields of archives and museums. He holds a joint appointment with the Department of History at CWRU and the Western Reserve Historical Society, where he serves as  Historian and Senior Vice President for Research and Publications. In addition to teaching at the department he also oversees the World Wide Web edition of The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History/Dictionary of Cleveland Biography, a joint project of Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Barbara & Bill Hamilton - Historians

Barbara is currently the Vice President of the Jefferson Historical Society and her husband Bill is a retired UPS driver. Both of them love history and work as a team to preserve it. Bill does his best to keep Barbara from taking on too much, with not much luck. Barbara has done extensive research about the Ashtabula Disaster and was a contributing author of the book entitled “Bliss & Tragedy” The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 and the Loss of P.P. Bliss.” Barbara considers herself a writer first and then a historian.

David Tobias - Historian & Artifact Collector

David has more information, historical documentation and artifacts from and about the Ashtabula train disaster then any living person on earth. If you want to know something about this incident, David probably has information about it tucked away in his vast archive and collection. David was also a contributing author to the book, “Bliss and Tragedy: The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 and the Loss of P.P. Bliss.”

Fritz Kuenzel - Locomotive Engineer, Historian & Artifact Collector

Fritz is a collector of everything about railroads especially the LS & MS Railroad.  He is train engineer with Norfolk Southern and has had an interest in the Ashtabula Disaster since the 1970’s. His collection of railroad artifacts and photos is astounding!  He also has a large collection of historic books and photos about the LS & MS Railroad including his own large collection of Ashtabula disaster artifacts. Fritz lives in Norwalk, Oh with his wife, four dogs and his daughter.

The Late - Chuck Burnham -

Locomotive Engineer, Passenger Conductor, Breakman & Historian

Chuck is a design engineer for Kinetek Controls in Perry, an eastern suburb of Cleveland, OH.  He designs test fixturing for battery powered vehicle controllers that the company has designed.  He writes software for their own deep cycle battery chargers.  He is employed with the Ashtabula, Carson, & Jefferson Railroad Company as a licensed locomotive engineer, passenger conductor, and brakeman.  He has spent a great deal of time studying the engineering aspects of the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster and created a web site for the disaster through his nonprofit organization, the Ashtabula Railway Historical Foundation.  He was also a contributing writer to Bliss and Tragedy, published after the 125th anniversary of this infamous event. Unfortunately, Chuck passed away on Friday, Nov. 30 at the Ashtabula County Nursing Home surrounded by his family. He will be missed.

Dr. Caillean M. McMahn, DO - Telegraph Expert & Historian

She is the granddaughter of Sidney Kennedy, a telegrapher on the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1915 to 1962. She learned her first Morse letters, DF, from her grandfather when she was ten.  Dr. McMahn, in her spare time, continues to read and research railroad telegraphy, restores historical telegraph equipment and builds historically accurate telegraph offices for museums. Dr. McMahn is also a member of the Lake Shore Railway Historical Society and the Reading Company Technical and Historical Society. In addition, both she and her daughter know American Morse and can read code from sounders. Dr. McMahn will be helping us recreate historically accurate telegraph operations during the filming of Engineering Tragedy: The Ashtabula Train Disaster.

Dr. Francesca C. Tronetti - Curator of the Women in Technology -19th Century Project

Francesca is the daughter of Dr. Caillean M. McMahon and is the curator of the Women in Technology - 19th Century Project. She oversaw the restoration of  Office N in the main office of the Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East, Pa. She developed the conception of the re-creation of Office JS on the Lake Shore Museum grounds as well. She is a Cultural Anthropologist with a Bachelor's in Anthropology from Edinboro University, a Masters in Cultural Anthropology and Women's Studies from Brandeis University and a Doctoral from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is fluent in Morse code, 19th century telegraph operations and equipment. She will also help with the set-up of the telegraph equipment and operations during filming.

Prof. Mark J. Camp, Ph.D - Railroad Historian

Dr. Camp is a geology professor at the University of Toledo Dept. of Environmental Sciences. However, he is also a longtime historian of early Ohio railroads and the author of several books on the subject including Railroad Depots of Northeast Ohio, his third book in a series of six or possibly seven books.  Dr. Camp became interested in trains and the railroad as a child when he and his father would create layouts for trains at their home. He also has a personal collection of thousands of slides, pictures and postcards filling 30 filing cabinets. Dr. Camp also serves as one of the directors of the Railroad Station Historical Society.

Dr. Timothy M. Kalil, Ph.D - Gospel Music & P.P. Bliss Historian

Dr. Kalil grew up in Ashtabula where the bridge disaster has always been a part of local history and lore. He became familiar with P.P. Bliss through playing and singing the composer’s hymns. Dr. Kalil was also a contributing author of the book Bliss & Tragedy: The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 and the Loss of P.P. Bliss. Besides being an accomplished pianist, instructor and conductor, Dr. Kalil has taught classes at the university level on Understanding (Western) Music, History of Jazz, American Music, Music As A World Phenomenon, Asian Music and African Music. Dr. Kalil will be helping us understand the loss of P.P. Bliss and his important contributions to gospel music.

Roger Peterson - Historian and Deputy Director of the Geauga County Dept. of Emergency Services

Roger Peterson brings 25 years of experience in the fire services to our film, as well as experience with documenting history & archives for the National American Lafrance Fire Museum in South Carolina. He is currently the Deputy Director of the Geauga County Dept. of Emergency Services and President of the Board for the North Bloomfield Historical Society.  Roger loves railroads, model trains and history, so this story is right up his alley. He will be working with us as the film's safety director and fire historian, as well as helping us with the acquisition of historic firefighting props. He is also serving as the manager of the outdoor bridge site where we will be filming the crash and fire scenes. He is also helping us build our outdoor set for the model bridge that was built by Mainline Bridge in AZ.

Damian Cavasos - Model Builder (Mainline Bridges)

Damian is the creative mind behind the monster model replica of the Ashtabula Bridge we are using on our outdoor set.  Damian not only builds model bridges of all scales, but he is a wealth of knowledge and information. He has a custom welding shop to tackle any idea or project. Any questions that someone may have on building a layout Mainline Bridges can provide information, building tips and recommended suppliers. If you need it, Damian can build it or help you find it. Literally he is one of the best model bridge builders in the world! 

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