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    Employees evacuated after bomb scare

    The device placed at a county complex did not contain explosives.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Just before 8 a.m. Monday, a county worker noticed a strange object sitting in a storage building at the Pinellas County Highway Department complex at U.S. 19 and Drew Street.

    The device was about 18 inches tall and a foot wide. It consisted of two PVC pipes and a red wire that was strung to a battery.

    It looked like a bomb.

    The worker told his supervisor, who alerted Pinellas sheriff's deputies. From 75 to 100 employees were evacuated from the 17-building complex at 22211 U.S. 19. The Hillsborough County bomb squad and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were summoned to examine the object.

    About four hours later, investigators gave the all-clear after determining the object did not include any explosives. They said it was a hoax.

    But the object looked real enough that investigators taped off the area as a crime scene and began a search for clues that would lead to who may have planted it.

    The device was found in a building on the northeast side of the complex where equipment is stored about a quarter-mile from U.S. 19, far enough that deputies didn't need to stop traffic.

    "It's got their attention," sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita said at about 10 a.m. "They're going to work it like it's a bomb."

    Clearwater firetrucks entered the complex throughout the morning as the bomb squad worked. Deputies blocked off the entrance, where an ambulance also waited in case something went wrong.

    Investigators passed photographs of the object around to employees. It appeared to have come from somewhere other than the complex, said Bob Warren, director of the highway department.

    "That's our job is to take it seriously," he said. "We can't make an assumption it's a hoax."

    Warren said most of the 250 employees who work at the complex do their jobs in the field, so they were unaffected by the scare. Office workers and staff were sent home or to other jobs in the county after the device was found, he said.

    "I don't know if it scares me or aggravates me," said Comey Wright, a 56-year-old computer supervisor who works at the complex. "I think at my age it aggravates me. I don't know what this world is coming to. I guess people can't talk out their differences."

    Wright said he has worked at the complex for 18 years. "This is a first," he said.

    Wright said supervisors and employees are trained to notice unusual things that could be a threat. "The county's pretty heads-up in that area," he said.

    Sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie said investigators drilled into the device and determined it contained no explosives. Investigators had no suspects in the planting of the dummy bomb, but planned to interview employees, he said.

    "It looked real enough," Dennie said.

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