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Search crews pull welder's body from collapsed Progress Energy building on Weedon Island

ST. PETERSBURG — Rescue workers on Monday afternoon found the body of a 65-year-old welder who was trapped inside an old power plant on Weedon Island when it collapsed on him Thursday.

Clark White, part of a crew helping to dismantle the old Progress Energy plant, had not been seen since the 180-foot-tall structure fell Thursday night.

Rescue officials said White's body was found in a "void space" that was about 18 inches high, 4 feet wide and 10 feet deep. They could not say if the initial collapse killed him immediately or if he lived for some time and died later.

"There is always the possibility that he could have been alive," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Division Chief Alan Rosetti, the incident commander during the rescue and recovery.

Officials said Clark's body would be removed from the site overnight and taken to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, where an autopsy is scheduled for today.

Officials said White's body was found about 4:50 p.m. about 15 feet inside the structure. Rescuers had homed in on a particular area of the rubble based on witness accounts of the collapse.

They found White's body after they cut holes in a beam, got a camera through and spotted him. They then began moving rubble and debris to get closer and pull him out.

"It's tedious work and takes a lot of time, and we are trying to be very gentle," Rosetti said.

White, a father, grandfather and Army veteran, warned crew members — including his son, Travis, 31, and a nephew — as the structure started to crumble Thursday night, his family said.

Rosetti said rescuers believe the collapse of a brick veneer at the building may have prevented White from getting out.

Though crews initially hoped to rescue White if he was alive, the operation switched from a rescue to a recovery mission Saturday evening.

White, who is from Moundsville, W. Va., was part of a team preparing a large boiler structure for a controlled collapse when it came down prematurely.

Although the search crew was focusing on a small area, the rubble and debris were so dense that it was a slow-going process, Rosetti said. The crew members worked in 30-minute shifts, resting in between. The debris in the area in which they were searching was piled 6 to 8 feet high.

White worked for Frontier Industrial Corp., of Buffalo, N.Y., which had been hired to demolish the building.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague and friend Clark White," Robert Zuchlewski, chief operating officer of Frontier, said at a news conference late Monday.

He said White was like a father figure to many in the company and will be missed dearly.

Zuchlewski said the operation will now focus on investigating what caused the collapse "to be sure we learn from this tragedy and be sure that it never happens again."

He said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will be involved with the investigation. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office also is conducting a death investigation, which is routine in cases of accidental death, spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said.

Pasha said investigators hope to release preliminary results about a cause of death today.

Officials said White's family members, who flew in to Tampa on Friday, had been on site during much of the recovery effort.

Search crews pull welder's body from collapsed Progress Energy building on Weedon Island 06/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 1:32am]
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