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After a sinkhole destroyed their home, the Jakubiecs plan for the future

By Melissa Gomez, Times Staff Writer
In July, what began as a small depression under a boat parked in a yard quickly grew to a large sinkhole, on Ocean Pines Drive in Lake Padgett Estates in Land O'Lakes. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

As she prepared for the day, Von Jakubiec began her routine. She pulled herself out of bed around 4:30 a.m. Her dogs, Angel and Gucci, waited patiently for their morning walk and breakfast.

Before hopping in the shower, she heard a noise that sounded like something falling off the shelf, but she brushed it off. In the bathroom, she noticed a corner of the drywall ceiling was peeling.

She told her husband, and they agreed to check back later when they got home from work.

Before Von left around 6:45 a.m., dressed down for a Friday, she texted her boss she was going to be late. Then, she turned to her dogs. Instead of telling them to be good, she asked for a favor on the anniversary of her mother’s birthday.

"God, please watch over my dogs and my house today," she remembers saying. What prompted it, she’s not sure.

Later, the Jakubiecs would say the peeling dry wall and creaking was the house falling apart.

But it would be the last time she would close the door to the home she spent 16 years crafting with her husband.

• • •

Less than 30 minutes after arriving at work, Jakubiec, 62, raced after her husband, Steve, who called and told her the place they called home at 21835 Ocean Pine Drive was falling into a sinkhole. The Jakubiecs lost nearly everything they owned July 14. They later spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about the day the earth opened up and swallowed the life they had built.

They are living out of their motor home that firefighters drove off the property before it fell in. It’s small compared to their former 2,200 sq. ft. space, but it is home for now.

Seven surrounding homes have been condemned, and families have been displaced.

Pasco County workers removed debris from the sinkhole and stabilized it with uncrushed limerock, completing the first phase of the project. Next, it will be up to the Board of County Commissioners to set a date for the next phase.

• • •

It was the warm Florida weather that brought Steve Jakubiec, 59, down from Cincinnati in 2000.

The sandy beaches were a welcome change from shoveling snow in Buffalo, his hometown. He met Von in Cincinnati, where she was his landlord. After she came down to visit him a couple of times, she moved in with him, and they married in 2001.

After her husband’s call, Von frantically dialed her neighbor during her 30-minute drive home. An instinct to save as much as she could kicked in.

She pleaded with Terence Doohen to save her dogs, who worked with firefighters to lure them out. Doohen kept 3-year-old Gucci and 13-year-old Angel safe.

Then, she begged him to save the motor home parked next to their house. By the time they managed to drive it away, Steve arrived.

The water churned and bubbled where the garage once stood. It was almost biblical, he said, the sound of the house crunching as it broke. It was like a blender, he thought, with practically everything he owned fused and destroyed.

"It just happened so crazy fast," he said. "Everything was fine just the day before and that next morning, basically the end of the world."

When Von arrived, she went straight for Angel and Gucci and held them close.

"I didn’t know what was happening to the rest of the Earth," she said, but as long as her husband and dogs were safe, she knew there was nothing more she could do.

All around Steve, orders were shouted, and the question of whether they could save the SUV parked in the driveway was raised. He handed someone the key and they drove it to safety.

As he stared at the churning waters, he couldn’t help but wonder: what if we had been home?

• • •

Both Jakubiecs can’t remember what time they went to bed after parking their motor home at an RV park nearby. They knew it was late; Von forced them to make a trip to a Walgreen’s pharmacy to refill prescriptions they lost in the hole.

When the pharmacist learned what happened, she pulled out her own wallet, Von said. It was a small act of kindness, one of many they would receive.

They were offered a free week of kennel services for their dogs, and free food from their veterinarian, Von said. Belk allowed her to shop for clothes for free, and strangers still walk up to them and offer help and support.

But Von is haunted by the thoughts of what could have been. The side of the house they slept in was the first side to go. What if it had been a Saturday morning and they slept in? What if she had called in sick?

Von said she almost did. Her vision was blurry and she didn’t feel well, but she mustered up the will to go in to work. As a breast cancer survivor, she was used to pushing past pain.

The thought of what could have been pluck at her mind constantly. What if they had been buried alive? For a while, they visited the sinkhole every day, searching the dirt for remnants of their life there.

But when she looked down at the pit that ate her home, she wonders: how could the earth swallow our whole life? It’s hard to think about the 80 pairs of shoes and the wigs she carefully collected during chemotherapy, now gone.

Somewhere in the hole she says looks fuller than she felt, her husband’s collection of antique radio lay. A 1980 280ZX Nissan, which he spent 10 years fixing, was now gone. It was the only item they had insurance on.

Her mother’s jewelry and boxes of family photos are buried beyond her grasp.

She fondly remembers the bagel-color walls with terra cotta accent of her home, decorated with a painting from a friend. It was where their musician friends would come over and have spontaneous jam sessions. There was a Key West-themed bathroom, where guests were asked to leave something behind in a net hanging from the ceiling.

In what remained of the bathroom, workers cleaning up found a porcelain bedpan, a family keepsake, Von said.

One less thing lost, one less thing to replace.

• • •

Von gets excited when packages from Amazon arrive. An electric toothbrush. An electric razor for Steve. It’s all part of how they will build their lives back.

Longtime friends and family have rallied around the couple, holding fundraisers and benefits to help them get back on their feet. Friends opened their homes and hearts to them, Von said.

The flood of help hasn’t stopped. United Way of Pasco County has raised about $43,000 for victims of the sinkhole. A family member of Von set up a GoFundMe account.

In August, her friends in the Land O’Lakes and Lutz music community held a "Build it Back" benefit concert at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa. The Jakubiecs knew someone from each local band that performed for free. The Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce held a silent auctions and raffles, raising about $1,800 for the victims of the sinkhole, said Suzanne Beauchaine, marketing and membership director for the chamber.

"This is closure for us," said Von. It was their last planned benefit. An earlier visit to the landfill revealed nothing was recovered.

When Irma was predicted to strike Pasco County, the Jakubiecs drove their motor home north to Alabama. It was the first time they had evacuated for one, Von said. Watching families lose their homes to Hurricane Harvey and Irma, she said the couple felt their pain.

But they soon came back, and plan on staying in the area close to their friends. Some have given them furniture for when they settle on a new home, which Von assures will be in the community they’ve gotten to know over the years.

"We’re just now trying to get our lives together."