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Hulk Hogan leads fans to safety after building shifts and autograph session is cut short

Hulk Hogan has opened his own store, Hogan's Beach Shop, on Clearwater Beach. It sells T-shirts, beach gear and memorabilia from the Hulkster's career. Ron Howard, is the store's manager and Hogan's partner in the store.   [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Hulk Hogan has opened his own store, Hogan's Beach Shop, on Clearwater Beach. It sells T-shirts, beach gear and memorabilia from the Hulkster's career. Ron Howard, is the store's manager and Hogan's partner in the store. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Mar. 6, 2016

What was supposed to be a routine autograph session with wrestling star Hulk Hogan on Saturday turned into an emergency evacuation when the hundreds of people lined up in Hogan's Clearwater Beach shop suddenly felt the building move.

The bandanna-wearing Hogan, whose popularity as a pro wrestler in the 1980s led to what was dubbed "Hulkmania," has been making headlines again lately as the plaintiff in a high-profile $100 million privacy lawsuit against the website Gawker over a sex tape. A St. Petersburg jury was seated to hear the case involving Hogan — whose real name is Terry Bollea — on Friday.

On Saturday, about 500 people had turned out to get an autograph and buy merchandise from Hogan's store in the Pelican Walk Plaza shopping center at 483 Mandalay Ave.

The signing at "the official shop for all your Hulkster gear," was scheduled for noon until 3 p.m. Those attending paid $100 per ticket in advance to get in, and $50 for children 14 and under.

But at about 12:30 p.m., people in the crowd felt the entire building shift, said Clearwater public information director Joelle Castelli.

"According to Terry, it felt like an earthquake," said Hogan's attorney, David Houston. "You could see some structural change in the building. The support columns that were holding up the second floor separated from the concrete floor, and they were just hanging there."

At that point, Houston said, Hogan realized everyone needed to leave the building as quickly as possible.

"He started leading people across the street and out of danger," Houston said. The crowd remained calm, he said. Soon, the Clearwater fire department showed up and took charge, evacuating the entire two-story strip mall.

Houston speculated the damage may have resulted from workers who were excavating in the back of the shopping center.

"They may have hit something critical to the foundation," the attorney said. "That place probably wasn't built to withstand an earthquake."

The fire marshal has now declared the building unsafe for human habitation, Castelli said. The stores will all remain closed until the owner can hire a structural engineer who determines it's safe to occupy.

The owner of the shopping center, Pelican Walk Plaza Investors LLC, did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.

Hogan, who starred in the TV show Hogan Knows Best from 2005 to 2007, will probably either refund money to ticketholders who did not get an autograph or he will reschedule the autograph session at a different location, Houston said.

On his Facebook page Friday, Hogan posted, "After a long week I need a recharge, can't wait to see everybody tomorrow. HH"

Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker concerns a tape that shows him having sex with the wife of his former best friend, Tampa DJ Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. Gawker published an excerpt of the tape, which Hogan contends is a violation of his privacy. Attorneys for Gawker argue the wrestling star has boasted about his sexual prowess for years on radio and television, making it a matter of public interest.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.