The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Friday, August 4, 1995                 TAG: 9508040464
SECTION: FRONT                    PAGE: A6   EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: WEEKSVILLE, N.C.                   LENGTH: Medium:   94 lines


Officials suspect that a construction worker's blowtorch may have touched off a fire that destroyed perhaps the world's largest wooden structure, holding the world's largest operating blimp.

The historic 1,000-by-300-foot hangar lay in ruins Thursday night. Only the cement-and-steel frames of the hangar's huge doors on either end remained standing.

The laminated pine structure was built in 1942 by the Navy and was known as Airship Dock No. 2, spawning airships that helped drive German submarines away from the coastal shipping lanes early in World War II.

The building, more recently used to construct, repair and store lighter-than-air craft, caught fire early Thursday, burned out of control for hours.

No one was injured, although residents of a nearby subdivision considered leaving their homes when flames were at their highest.

James A. Bitonti, president and CEO of TCOM L.P., the major tenant in the huge structure, estimated his company's damage at $30 million to $40 million. TCOM, based in Columbia, Md., makes huge tethered surveillance balloons called aerostats.

Total damage estimates ranged up to $100 million but could not be confirmed. An official for Westinghouse Airship Inc., which owned the 222-foot-long Sentinel 1000 airship considered the world's biggest, refused to disclose dollar damages.

``It's a loss to the landscape of Elizabeth City,'' TCOM Ground Systems Manager Eddie Meekins said. ``It's been a landmark for many, many people. . .

Fire officials lingered to watch over the smoking remains, which still popped and crackled as heat worked into asphalt. Chunks of metal continued to fall from the frame, and small explosions from pressurized tanks were recorded throughout the day.

The fire started at the top of the 120-foot doors on the east end of the hangar, Weeksville Volunteer Fire Chief Wayne White said. Until about 9 p.m. Wednesday, a contracting firm had been in that part of the building, using welders and torches to repair a major I-beam, Bitonti said.

The construction work ``is clearly an area of high suspicion,'' he said.

Richard Riley, general manager of the Norfolk-based Globe Iron Construction Co., said his company had supplied materials to TCOM and had a subcontractor working on the building.

Pasquotank County Fire Marshal Tom Memolo confirmed that the construction would be part of his investigation, but said he could be sure of nothing ``till it cools down.''

The fire call, reported by a security guard at the hangar, came around 12:05 a.m. Thursday, said White of the Weeksville fire department.

``There were flames showing six miles when we got the call,'' White said. Kill Devil Hills fire officials reported seeing the blaze as soon as they crossed the Wright Memorial Bridge from the Outer Banks, nearly 50 miles away.

Firefighters arrived on the scene to find flames spitting from the top of the structre's east end, some 120 feet off the ground. Elizabeth City's ladder truck extends 100 feet.

``We just didn't have nothing to get up there to fight it with.''

After the fire got out of control, ``It traveled probably 300 feet in approximately seven, eight minutes,'' White said, adding it was the largest fire he had ever seen.

About 80 firefighters and 16 pieces of equipment from 10 departments battled the fire, working to keep it from spreading to a subdivision on the other side of a line of trees.

``We'd look out the back window and get the glow in the distance,'' said Bob Nerney, who lives on Small Drive in the subdivision behind the hangar. Nerney was sweeping soot and debris from his driveway Thursday morning.

``It was pretty wild,'' said A. Mack Sawyer, who photographed the blaze. ``Just explosions all night long. . . . I thought I was back in Saigon 25 years ago.''

Lost in the flames were an uninflated 71-meter aerostat, a complete 32-meter balloon and a 25-meter inflated ballloon belonging to TCOM, Bitonti said.

Westinghouse Airship vice president for business development Jud Brandreth said his company also lost parts and shop equipment in addition to its gigantic blimp.

Two TCOM aerostats, a 71-meter and a 32-meter balloon, remained tethered on the shore of the Pasquotank River and unharmed by the blaze. The balloons had been outside for demonstration flights. A 71-meter aerostat is worth rougly $30 million, Meekins said.

Both TCOM and Westinghouse Airship hope to remain in the Elizabeth City area. Bitonti said TCOM was looking at a former Kmart store as a possible temporary site.

TCOM employs about 45 people in the area. Westinghouse has 21 workers here, Brandreth said.

The companies have been in the hangar for nearly a quarter-century, Bitonti said.