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Autopsy shows trapped welder died instantly, officials say

ST. PETERSBURG — The man who was trapped beneath the rubble of a Weedon Island power plant that collapsed last week died instantly, officials said Tuesday.

Clark White's autopsy showed that the 65-year-old welder died from blunt trauma, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.

"The injuries were significant enough in nature that they would've caused death immediately upon the collapse," spokesman Bill Pellan said Tuesday afternoon.

Clark, a father, grandfather and Army veteran from Moundsville, W.Va., was part of a crew hired to demolish an old Progress Energy power plant. The 180-foot-tall structure was scheduled to come down shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, but collapsed an hour early — with Clark still inside.

Clark, who was on the ground floor, heard some cracking and popping and warned other crew members, including his son and a nephew, just before the building came down.

But he didn't make it out. Rescue teams found his body Monday afternoon.

The days-long search for White, who worked for Frontier Industrial Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., was grueling.

From the beginning, the scene was grim. Rescuers were encouraged, however, by the fact that they were finding pockets of space called voids in the rubble.

"Every void space we could find, we put the camera in," said Alan Rosetti, the St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue district chief who was the commander at the scene. "We all had hope."

Still, there was never any word from White, who had more than 15 years of experience in the demolition field.

And by Saturday afternoon, nearly 48 hours after the search began, hope began to plummet.

A computerized survey tool from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office allowed crews to pinpoint numerous spots on the structure and take continual readings to gauge if there was any movement.

"The whole time we were there, it never shifted," Rosetti said.

Special search and rescue dogs, trained to find live victims, also never got any hits. Eventually, would-be rescuers detected an odor that they recognized as decomposition.

Rosetti and other experts on scene made the decision to reclassify the effort as a recovery mission Saturday evening. They suspended the search at about 6 p.m.

"It's a tough decision and we don't do it unless we're sure," Rosetti said. "The reality of it was, after the second day, that it was obvious to us that it was not going to be a live victim rescue.

"That's always difficult for the families to hear and understand," he added. "Until they see the person, they want to believe."

So does the public, experts say.

It can be hard for people to accept there may not be a happy ending, especially when they see stories of people being pulled out of rubble weeks after hurricanes or earthquakes.

"It's one of these cultural things, that you don't leave people behind," said Dr. Joseph Barbera, co-director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University.

White's family, who flew to Tampa on Friday, were on site for much of the search. Rosetti said officials kept them updated about the process.

"They still wanted, they needed, to see his body out of the structure to accept it," he said. "But they were very understanding of what we were doing the whole time. … They held up really well."

When the search became a recovery, it also meant a new schedule for rescuers. Instead of working through the night, work on Sunday went from daybreak until about 6 p.m. They returned again Monday morning.

When a rescue is downgraded to a body recovery mission, officials have to weigh risks and benefits.

Safety is always the No. 1 priority, Rosetti said, and the search for White was exhausting — and dangerous.

Even though much of the building was rubble, it was still considered an active collapse zone full of dense materials, he said.

What's more, firefighters on the crew, who are specially trained for urban search and rescue, were working 10-hour shifts at the collapse site, then returning to their regular shifts at fire stations around the county.

Crews found White's body shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, in a void space about 18 inches high, 4 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The area was about 15 feet inside the structure.

Barbera said questions about when and whether to search are always going to exist.

But he said that once a search mission becomes a recovery one, it's important to minimize any further risk to those involved.

"These are very difficult situations and the most difficult thing is to explain that … to the public," Barbera said. "It sounds like they were doing the right things."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Autopsy shows trapped welder died instantly, officials say 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 11:37pm]

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