A Hillsborough County, Fla., firefighter on Sunday removes salvaged items, including a family photo, from the home where a sinkhole swallowed Jeffrey Bush, late Thursday.
(Photo: Chris O'Meara, AP)
Authorities on Sunday demolished most of a Florida home sitting over the 60-feet deep sinkhole that swallowed up part of the house and one of its residents three days ago.
The search for Jeff Bush, 37, was called off Saturday. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokeswoman Jessica Damico said Sunday that officials had used heavy equipment to drag some personal property to a "safe zone" established beyond the sidewalk of the home in the central Florida town of Seffner.
Damico said workers then sifted through the debris to recover what they could for the family. She said they were able to reclaim a purse, a wallet, some money from a dresser and two laptop computers from the rubble. A jewelry box, a Bible, a pink teddy bear and some pictures also were salvaged.
"We were able to get a couple family photos," she said. "They pulled out the only photo they had of their grandmother."
Several generations of family members lived in the house, including Bush's brother, Jeremy, 35; his girlfriend, Rachel Wicker, 27; their daughter, Hannah, 2; and two other people. Neighbor Vernita Johnson said it was difficult to watch a family's home being torn down.
"It's hard because I'm hurting with them," she said. "My son grew up with them.... We feel the pain."
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said crews' goal for Sunday was to knock down the bulk of the house. On Monday they will clear the debris as much as possible to allow officials and engineers to see the sinkhole in the open.
Damico said Bush was in his bedroom in the one-story home at about 11 p.m. Thursday when the sinkhole, estimated at about 20 feet wide, yawned directly under him. Jeremy jumped into the hole to try to save his brother but had to be rescued himself by a sheriff's deputy.
Other residents made it out of the home unharmed, Damico said. Bush could not be rescued and is presumed dead.
Two adjoining houses - one on either side of Bush's - were evacuated by rescue workers.
The Rev. John Martin Bell of Shoals Baptist Church said he had been with the Bush family all morning. "We just prayed with them," he said.
Detective 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.
Sinkholes are common in Florida, but it's rare when one opens up under a home and takes a person with it, Damico said.
"I can't think of anywhere in the country where this has happened before," she said. "This is very unique."
Florida is highly prone to sinkholes because there are caverns below ground of limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water.
Anthony Randazzo, who has made a career studying sinkholes - first as a professor at the University of Florida and now through his company, Geohazards - said he recalls only two other people who died because of a sinkhole in the 40 years he's been involved with the geological phenomenon. And in both those cases - both in Florida - Randazzo said the people were drilling water wells and triggered the sinkholes to open underneath them.
"Usually, you have some time," said Randazzo, who has lectured on sinkholes at Oxford University. "These catastrophic sinkholes give you some warning over the course of hours. This is very unusual and very tragic."
Contributing: Associated Press
Alan Gomez, John Bacon and Rick Jervis, USA TODAY