After demolition work Monday revealed the giant sinkhole that swallowed a Tampa-area man as he slept Thursday night, crews began filling in the chasm presumed to be his grave.
During a brief ceremony at 4 p.m., the family of 37-year-old Jeffrey Bush placed a teddy bear, a photo, notes and flowers into the bucket of a backhoe, which dropped them into the estimated 60-foot-deep hole in Seffner, about 15 miles east of Tampa. Then came a truckload of gravel, the first in the process of filling in the yawning hole that took Bush without warning.
Bush’s brother, Jeremy, said he hopes the site will one day include a bench or tombstone so his parents can visit their son’s grave.
Throughout the day, crews using a crane and a backhoe continued work begun Sunday to knock down the house from a safe distance after it was determined the ground was too unstable to conduct a rescue operation. Firefighters picked through the debris to retrieve valuables and keepsakes.
Crews are expected to finish removing its foundation Tuesday, and officials will then work to determine the exact dimensions of the hole.
Hillsborough County, Fla., spokesman Willie Puz said crews would then “stabilize the hole,” though he would not say exactly what would be done.
As demolition of the Bush house continued Monday afternoon, emergency crews responded to a report of another, smaller sinkhole about 2 miles away. Officials estimated the newest hole at about 10 feet deep but said there was no structural damage or danger to residents.
Jeremy Bush questioned whether rescue teams did enough initially to try to reach him beneath the mud and debris.
“You see all this heavy equipment?” he told a group of reporters Monday. “They could have tried harder to get my brother out of there.”
Jeremy had gone into the hole when it opened up Thursday night in a vain attempt to rescue Jeff, but couldn’t find him. A deputy summoned by a 911 call had to pull Jeremy out from the unstable sinkhole, which was still caving in.
With demolition crews prepared for a second day of work to knock down the remaining walls of the house, Jeremy Bush anguished over the loss of his brother, whose body has not been recovered.
“My mom and dad are going through hell right now,” he said.
Five others in the house escaped harm, including Jeremy, who ran to the room after hearing his brother screaming for help.
Rescue operations were called off by Hillsborough County officials Saturday, forcing Bush’s family to sift through pieces of debris Sunday to salvage whatever they could. They retrieved three carloads of clothes, computers, wallets and purses.
“We were able to get a couple family photos,” county fire rescue spokeswoman Jessica Damico said. “They pulled out the only photo they had of their grandmother.”
The remainder of the house and its contents will be dragged toward the street so crews can recover items inside and keep debris from falling into the hole, Puz said Monday.
The crews demolishing the house are using cranes and other equipment from a distance because of the unstable ground.
The home was owned by Leland Wicker, the grandfather of Jeremy Bush’s girlfriend, Rachel Wicker. On Sunday, Wicker’s daughter, Wanda Carter, cradled the large family Bible where they stored baptism certificates, cards and photos.
“It means that God is still in control, and he knew we need this for closure,” Wanda Carter said.
The Rev. John Martin Bell of Shoals Baptist Church said he prayed with the Bush family Sunday morning. He said the family needs support and prayers.
Damico said the two neighboring houses also have been vacated and could be condemned because of the sinkhole.
Florida is highly prone to sinkholes because of caverns below ground of limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water.
Thousands of sinkholes develop in Florida and other states each year — many of them swallowing buildings and vehicles. What is unusual about the Seffner sinkhole is the loss of life.
Anthony Randazzo, a former University of Florida geology professor who now works for Geohazards, a company that specializes in evaluating sinkholes, said he could recall only two people dying as a result of sinkholes in the four decades he has studied and worked on them. Both those cases occurred in Florida when people drilling water wells created the sinkholes.
“Usually, you have some time,” Randazzo said. “These catastrophic sinkholes give you some warning over the course of hours. This is very unusual and very tragic.”