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Fire leaves a trail of questions

Department of Environmental Protection investigator Jeff Tobergte, left, tests the air Monday with George Bessler, Seminole assistant fire chief and deputy commander of the Pinellas hazardous materials team, after Friday’s fire at Clearwater’s Aerosonic Corp. The test showed normal readings.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Department of Environmental Protection investigator Jeff Tobergte, left, tests the air Monday with George Bessler, Seminole assistant fire chief and deputy commander of the Pinellas hazardous materials team, after Friday’s fire at Clearwater’s Aerosonic Corp. The test showed normal readings.

CLEARWATER — Three days after a large fire at the site of Aerosonic Corp., investigators still had not been inside the charred Clearwater building Monday. And questions remained about what type of dangerous chemicals may have been present.

Samuel Venzeio, a spokesman for the state fire marshal, said investigators were waiting on clearance from the Department of Environmental Protection, which was running precautionary tests for hazardous materials. He expected investigators to enter the building today.

DEP workers took air samples testing for mercury and corrosives at the site on Monday and the results were within acceptable limits.

The building at 1212 N Hercules Ave. caught fire Friday night and burned into Saturday. Fire officials initially said it was a suspicious blaze, but Venzeio said it was entirely too early to determine the cause.

The company, which makes aviation instrumentation and avionics equipment, employs 170 people in Clearwater, about 40 of whom worked in the burned building. Some of these employees may be moved to the company's other facility in Virginia, said Mark Perkins, an executive vice president.

Perkins said that the company performed anodizing procedures in the building and that various rinses and acids were inside. He said they had all been properly listed with authorities.

Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that Aerosonic has had problems with contamination.

In 1993, the company entered into a consent agreement with the DEP to contain and clean up soil and groundwater contamination discovered at the Clearwater site.

The source of the contamination is still unknown, the filing said.

It "may have resulted from the accidental loss of solvents and metalworking fluids," or from activity on neighboring properties, the filing said. The company now takes routine measurements to make sure the pollution has been removed.

Thirty percent of the company's sales are to the U.S. military.

Employee Brenda Stonom was optimistic. A Clearwater resident, she said she's worked for Aerosonic for decades and currently works with aircraft calibration.

"We have come through a lot of things and we will overcome this," Stonom said.

"I have faith in this company. It has ridden out a lot of storms. It will rise above this. We have a war to supply."

Staff photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Fire leaves a trail of questions 08/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2008 3:35pm]
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