Rescuers work to free man trapped inside rubble of building collapse

Progress Energy’s Bartow Plant on Weedon Island in St. Petersburg was being prepared for demolition.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Progress Energy’s Bartow Plant on Weedon Island in St. Petersburg was being prepared for demolition.

ST. PETERSBURG — Rescuers worked into the night to free a man trapped beneath seven stories of concrete, steel and glass that collapsed on top of him Thursday at Progress Energy's Bartow Power Plant on Weedon Island.

Rescue crews didn't know whether the man they were searching for was still alive.

But they did know that he was on the ground floor when the building came down.

"It could take days," said St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue division chief Robert Bassett. "The debris pile is over 60 feet high."

The entire collapse zone measured 300 by 300 feet wide, the chief said.

The trapped man is a 67-year-old welder, according to St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. He was helping prepare the building at 1601 Weedon Island Drive for demolition that very night.

But about 7:15 p.m. — an hour before the building was set to come down — loud sounds were heard by other workers in the area.

"The 67-year-old male was using a torch when he heard some cracking and popping," said Bassett.

That was the account of a witness, another worker, who managed to escape the collapse. There were 21 Progress Energy employees and contractors at the site, but officials said all but one scrambled to safety.

The trapped worker was not identified. Company officials said he was a contractor who worked for Frontier Industrial Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the gentleman trapped in this terrible accident and his family," said David Sorrick, vice president of power generation for Progress Energy Florida, who was at the scene of the collapse late Thursday night.

The trapped man's co-workers, Progress Energy spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said, "are very distressed."

The building known as No. 3 Boiler stood 180 feet tall at the Weedon Island facility. It first went online in 1958, turning oil into electricity.

Progress Energy Florida, which serves more than 1.6 million customers, spent $800 million to change the Bartow plant over from oil to natural gas. The company said that more than doubled its capacity when it reopened in 2009.

So the old facilities went offline and were slated for demolition. The collapsed No. 3 Boiler was one of several buildings at the facility that workers were preparing to demolish in the coming months.

Workers were readying the building for what company officials called a "controlled collapse." They were cutting eight of the building's 18 14-inch H-beams that supported the boiler section.

That would cause them to buckle "like a knee joint," Grant said.

The premature collapse turned the building into a tall pile of rubble right next to the plant's iconic 300-foot smokestacks. The rubble was visible from Gandy Boulevard and the waters of Tampa Bay.

Dozens of rescuers from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties raced to the scene. Specialized rescue crews and search dogs were dispatched.

They set up large truck-mounted spotlights to illuminate the collapse zone. Some firefighters worked to stabilize the pile.

A five-person rescue team wearing helmets, head lamps and safety gear started making its way around the rubble with search dogs. The team used special tools to lift debris up to aid the search. A backup team stood nearby.

Rescuers thought they had pinpointed a possible location for the trapped worker 30 feet inside the rubble. They also believed there were small "void" spaces inside the rubble that a survivor could take shelter in.

But as the rescue efforts entered their fifth hour early Friday, they were still unable to locate the trapped worker or communicate with him.

A search dog from Miami was dispatched to spell the Tampa search dogs. The effort to rescue the worker and stabilize the rubble pile was expected to go slowly, officials said.

They had no idea how long the rescue efforts would take.

Rescuers work to free man trapped inside rubble of building collapse 06/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 1:20am]

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