Times Staff Writers
ST. PETERSBURG — Clark White heard cracking and popping inside the old Progress Energy power plant on Weedon Island.
The 180-foot-tall building wasn't scheduled to be demolished until late Thursday night. But shortly after 7 p.m., White, a welder helping take the structure apart, sensed something wasn't right.
White, torch in hand, was on the ground floor. He started yelling for everyone to get out. The crew — which included his son — started scrambling.
But when the dust settled, the crew realized White hadn't made it out with them. He was trapped beneath seven stories of concrete, steel and glass.
That was the account his daughter, P.J. Ondeck, got in a frantic call from her brother Travis White, 31, shortly after the collapse. Ondeck, the oldest of Clark White's four children, could hear the tears in her younger brother's voice.
"My brother was in the building and my dad yelled for him to get out," Ondeck said through her own tears in a telephone interview Friday with the St. Petersburg Times. "He told me that the building fell on my dad."
Search and rescue crews continued to comb through the rubble Friday looking for White. They said there's a possibility the 65-year-old from Moundsville, W.Va., is still alive somewhere inside the massive mound.
Rescuers say they won't stop searching until they find the missing father.
• • •
Minutes after the collapse Thursday, rescue crews from all over the Tampa Bay area descended on Weedon Island. They called off the search efforts after midnight and resumed them a few hours later Friday.
As many as 30 rescuers from the St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park, Tampa and Hillsborough County fire departments have been methodically searching for the missing man since the collapse.
They have been using cameras, listening devices and dogs to search the rubble, and heavy equipment to remove layers of the debris.
By Friday night, search and rescue dogs from Hillsborough County and Miami had helped narrow the search area.
Rescuers surmised the missing man could be inside a section of the fallen building that is 20 feet wide and 28 feet long. That area that may contain voids: small, empty caves created by the falling debris.
"If a victim was going to be found alive in a location," said Clayton Prescott, a structural specialist with Florida Task Force 3, a specialized regional search and rescue team, "it would be in those void areas."
But to get to their target, rescuers had to dig through 50 to 60 feet of rubble. The targeted area is on the western edge of the rubble, facing Gandy Boulevard.
The work has been painstaking. Rescuers used backhoes to dig out sections of debris. But they also had to dig into the rubble by hand while dodging falling pieces.
"At this point, we've had to use our hands a little bit more," Prescott said. "It's still a very dangerous and active collapse zone."
Prescott, 28, was the first engineer to reach the scene. The St. Petersburg resident volunteers in urban search and rescue for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the regional task force.
It helps that the building didn't collapse pancake-style, he said. That has given rescuers hope.
"In this case the structure fell on its side," Prescott said. "The framing on the inside has actually left some large voids."
• • •
Ondeck, 40, and her stepmother, Penny White, flew into Tampa on Friday and joined her brother at the site of the collapse on Weedon Island.
The missing man's daughter said she was frustrated by the lack of communication with his employer, Frontier Industrial Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., which was hired to demolish the building.
Clark White has worked for Frontier for the past eight years. But the company has been no help to the family, the daughter said.
"They still won't give us any information," said Ondeck, who is from Ohio. "They haven't contacted us. We contacted them."
She said the family has been getting all their information from the brother who made it out.
The company initially declined to identify the missing man, citing the family's wishes. But later they confirmed that Clark White is the man trapped beneath the rubble.
Ondeck spoke proudly of her dad. Her father, she said, is retired from the U.S. Army, where he also did demolition work. His company said he has more than 15 years of experience and worked as an industrial dismantling specialist.
"He knows what he's doing," Ondeck said. "He's been doing it quite a while."
• • •
Progress Energy said 21 of its employees and contractors were at the site working to dismantle the plant's retired Number 3 boiler at the time of the collapse.
The building was scheduled to be demolished at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. But it came down about 7:15 p.m.
Progress Energy spokesman Tim Leljedal said it was too early for officials to say what went wrong. The incident is being investigated by several agencies.
The building collapse and the search for Clark White are not expected to affect electricity generation at the Bartow plant, company officials said.
The building was one of three that housed boilers used to generate electricity at the plant, which originally opened in 1958. In operation since 1963, the felled building was the last of the three steam units added to the site.
Progress Energy took all three units offline in 2009 when new natural gas-powered plants went into service at the plant.
Although Progress Energy owns the building, the permit, issued Nov. 19 by Pinellas County, is registered to Frontier. The company offers demolition services throughout North and South America and has maintained a good safety record with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Premature building collapses are rare in the demolition business, said Ray Passeno, the past president of the National Demolition Association. A power plant in California prematurely collapsed in 2008, killing one and injuring two others.
Thursday's building collapse is the second life-threatening incident this year for Progress Energy's parent company.
In March, a 24-year-old technician died in an explosion at one of Progress Energy's North Carolina plants. The last fatal accident at a Progress Energy Florida plant was in 2004, at the coal-fired power plant in Crystal River.
Company officials have been on site at the Weedon Island collapse. "We recognize that, in a situation like this, every minute matters," David Sorrick, vice president of power generation for Progress Energy Florida, said in a statement.
• • •
Rescuers halted their efforts around 11 p.m. Friday. They were exhausted and high winds were kicking up too much dirt around the rubble pile, making conditions too difficult for the search teams. The rescue effort was set to resume at daylight.
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.