Crews planned to begin demolishing a Florida home Sunday that is perched over a huge sinkhole, after deeming it too dangerous to keep searching for the man swallowed up from his bedroom.
The search for Jeff Bush, 37, was called off Saturday and demolition equipment was seen moving into position Sunday. The 20-foot-wide opening of the sinkhole is almost completely covered by the house and rescuers feared it would collapse on them. Two neighboring homes were evacuated as a precaution.
Heavy equipment, including a vehicle with a big bucket scoop on a long arm, was on the street near the house Sunday morning. Family members gathered on lawn chairs, bundled up with blankets against unusually chilly weather. Several dozen people milled about within view, including officials and reporters.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill disclosed the plan hours earlier to raze the home. "At this point it's really not possible to recover the body," Merrill said, later adding "we're dealing with a very unusual sinkhole."
Jessica Damico, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, said the demolition equipment would be positioned on what was believed to be solid ground and reach onto the property to pull apart the house. The crew was expected to try pulling part of the house away from the sinkhole intact so some of the residents' keepsakes can be retrieved.
Bush was in his bedroom Thursday night in Seffner — a suburb of 8,000 people 15 miles east of downtown Tampa — when the ground opened and took him and everything else in his room. Five others in the house escape unharmed as the earth crumbled.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is conducting the investigation. Det. Larry McKinnon said that sheriff's office and the county medical examiner cannot declare Bush dead if his body is still missing. Under Florida law, Bush's family must petition a court to declare him deceased.
"Based on the circumstances, he's presumed dead, however the official death certificate can only be issued by a judge and the family has to petition the court," McKinnon said.
On Saturday, the normally quiet neighborhood of concrete block homes painted in Florida pastels was jammed with cars as curious onlookers converged on the scene.
At the home next door to the Bushes, a family cried and organized boxes. Testing determined that that house and another had been compromised by the sinkhole. The families were allowed to go inside for about a half-hour to gather belongings.
Sisters Soliris and Elbairis Gonzalez, who live on the same street, said neighbors were worried for their safety.
"I've had nightmares," Soliris Gonzalez, 31, said. "In my dreams, I keep checking for cracks in the house."
They said the family has discussed where to go if forced to evacuate, and they've taken their important documents to a storage unit.
"You never know underneath the ground what's happening," added Elbairis Gonzalez, 30.
Experts say thousands of sinkholes form yearly in Florida because of the state's unique geography, though most are small and deaths rarely occur.
"There's hardly a place in Florida that's immune to sinkholes," said Sandy Nettles, who owns a geology consulting company in the Tampa area. "There's no way of ever predicting where a sinkhole is going to occur."
Most sinkholes are small, like one found Saturday morning in Largo, 35 miles away from Seffner. The Largo sinkhole, about 10 feet long and several feet wide, is in a mall parking lot.
The state sits on limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water, with a layer of clay on top. The clay is thicker in some locations — including the area where Bush became a victim — making them even more prone to sinkholes.
Jeremy Bush, who tried to rescue his brother, lay flowers near the house Saturday morning and wept.
He said someone came to his home a couple of months ago to check for sinkholes and other issues, apparently for insurance purposes, but found nothing wrong. State law requires home insurers to provide coverage against sinkholes.
"And a couple of months later, my brother dies. In a sinkhole," Bush said Friday.