For more than a year, James Williams has been watching his house crumble around him.
Daylight shines through the cracks in his laundry room walls now, and the vertical crack that began at the front of his concrete-block home now stretches across the living room floor and through the tile fireplace. He’s patched that crack three times, but it just keeps splitting open again.
At night, he and his wife, Heather, listen as the creaking and popping in their house grows louder.
“It’s truly a nightmare that I can never seem to wake up from,” Williams said.
His insurance company, Universal Property and Casualty Insurance Co., has denied his assertion that a sinkhole has developed beneath his house, saying test results show otherwise. In denying his insurance claim, the company told Williams that his house, built in 1978 at 1405 S. Gordon Ave. in Bartow, is experiencing normal settling.
Corporate officials with Universal Property did not return phone messages for this report.
A NEIGHBOR’S HOUSE
Next door, at 1395 S. Gordon Ave., Pascal Singletary and his wife, Melissa, are watching the Williams house closely.
Six years ago, they witnessed similar problems in their own home. Those began in the laundry room, on the end of the house closest to the Williams home.
“My insurance company ran all kinds of tests but said it was just the expansion and contracting of the clay under the house,” Singletary said. “We just kept an eye on it.”
Recently, Singletary said, he’s been noticing additional cracking, and sunlight now pours through the split between the concrete blocks in the laundry room.
He said he plans to see what happens with the Williams house before calling his insurer, State Farm Insurance, to take another look at the home where he’s lived since 2004.
“With the Williams house going like that, it sure raises our suspicions about what’s going on,” he said. “We’re concerned, and I know we both would like to get out of here.”
Williams said he feels trapped in a ticking time bomb.
“We bought this house nine years ago for $80,000, and we still owe about $55,000 on it,” he said. “We can’t afford to move anywhere else, and nobody’s going to buy it the way it is now. If we could stabilize this house and repair it, I’m all for it. I just want some place safe to live.”
Bartow engineer Larry Madrid, whose engineering firm specializes in sinkhole issues, said the damage to Williams’ house doesn’t appear to be normal settling.
“When you can put your finger through a crack in the wall, that’s not what we would consider normal settlement,” he said. “If that was normal, it wouldn’t be happening now, as opposed to earlier in the life of the building, and not to this degree.”
If this is a sinkhole, Madrid said, it’s different from the kind that killed a Seffner man about a month ago when it opened up under a house, pulling him into the hole. That one had sheer vertical sides, unlike the bowl-like depression that appears to be forming under Williams’ house.
Williams said the Seffner man’s death from a sinkhole made him and his family keenly aware of the dangers sinkholes can pose.
He has hired Bartow lawyer Brad Stewart, who has brought in sinkhole engineers to examine the 1,200-square-foot house and property. Stewart said Tuesday those results are expected within the next month.
“I just want to get something done,” Williams said.
The problems began about 16 months ago with a vertical crack up the middle of the house, he said.
“I didn’t think much of it,” Williams said. “I tried to seal the crack three different times, but it just busted open each time. Since then, it’s been a steady progression. Now, the laundry room is separating from the rest of the house. You can see the ground below the house through the crack in the floor, and some of the doors don’t shut anymore.”
Not long ago, the phone quit working after the wiring inside the wall shorted out, he said.
A payload operator on the night shift at Mosaic, Williams said he worries about his family throughout his shift.
“I’m worried to death about this when I’m not home with Heather and our son,” he said. “I’m scared the whole house is going to fall in while I’m gone.”
Heather Williams said she’s equally concerned to be home alone with their 2-year-old son, Jacob.
“I don’t have any peace of mind,” she said. “When James was gone one night, the whole house shook for a few seconds. Even the windows rattled. I just don’t know where this is going to end.”