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50-year family home teeters on edge of sinkhole in Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS — Nathaniel and Virginia Crawford were the first to build a home on S Disston Avenue in 1957. The house was not fancy, but it was comfortable and private, surrounded by trees in those days when Disston was considered way out of town.

The Crawfords raised their five children there. Later, they babysat their grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the house on Disston. For more than 50 years, it was the daily gathering place for the growing, close-knit family.

But now the house at 709 S Disston Ave. is teetering on the brink. On Thursday, two big sinkholes opened up in the Crawfords' back yard. A third yawned open in the street in front of their house, gobbling asphalt and sidewalk until it was a stunning 50 feet deep.

With only the clothes they were wearing, the family fled the place where they had always found safety and comfort.

A concrete shed in their back yard that contained two deep freezers and a refrigerator fell into one of the holes. The freezers were full of food the Crawfords had stashed away in preparation for Sunday's annual family Father's Day dinner.

Now, the family isn't certain how, or if, they will continue the dinner tradition. They don't know if they will ever return to the home.

Yet Virginia Crawford, 83, is grateful.

"I thank the Lord," said Crawford, who had seven great-grandchildren in the home with her Thursday when the ground began to collapse. "We are just glad this didn't happen at night and we were able to get out."

The Crawfords have another reason to be grateful: They bought sinkhole insurance earlier this year.

On Friday, the shock of the sudden destruction that began around 6 p.m. Thursday was still with them.

"I couldn't believe what my eyes were seeing," Crawford said Friday. "I said, 'What in the world is happening? Is it going to swallow up the house?' "

When the ground stopped sinking Thursday night, the house was still standing. But one corner had no earth under it. The family is waiting for an engineer and their insurance company to examine the property and tell them what comes next.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross is assisting Crawford and her husband, Nathaniel, 90. They have a hotel room until Monday and they were given money to purchase clothes.

The couple had sensed something was wrong earlier after seeing cracks in the interior walls of the house. An engineer was called and arrived Thursday.

The same day, the family also called ground modification specialists L.R.E. Ground Services Inc. of Brooksville to fill in a small hole in the back yard. The earth gave way before they could do the work.

Even the experts were impressed by the size of the crater in front of the Crawford home.

"It's very rare to see a sinkhole that size," said Jim Flynn of L.R.E. "Only about 1 percent of sinkhole claims over the last five years were deemed catastrophic and this is likely one of those."

Flynn said there could be a range of reasons for the sinkholes, including decaying debris under the soil and the lack of rain. Drought can cause the limestone layers beneath the soil to collapse.

On Friday city crews worked to fill the enormous hole in the public roadway. Tom Funcheon, Tarpon Springs public works director, said it took about 25 truckloads of dirt to fill it up. Testing is being done to identify the cause of the sinkhole, and Funcheon said he expects a report by Monday. Disston Avenue will likely remain closed south of Harrison Street through the weekend, Funcheon said.

The holes in the Crawfords' back yard are smaller. One is 12 feet wide and 7 feet deep and the other is 25 feet wide and 13 feet deep.

On Friday the Crawfords, who have been married for 64 years, sat side by side on the front pew of Oak Hill Church of God in Christ about a block from their home. They helped establish the church, where Nathaniel Crawford is a senior deacon and Sunday School superintendent.

The Crawfords' daughter, Georgia Alberty, 56, was there too. Anitra Merrick, a granddaughter, couldn't focus at work, so she met them at the church. Great-granddaughter Kobie Jones was there, too. Together, they waited for news about the home where the family's heart is.

For a moment, they pondered who would feed the family's fathers on Sunday.

"It's where we spent holidays and weekends and we all have stuff in the house," Alberty said. "It's the family gather spot. It's going to be hard if we don't have our house anymore."

New crater?

Officials late Friday night were investigating depressions that formed in the ground at Dorset Park, which is about a block from the house where sinkholes formed Thursday. Police closed the park after getting reports of a sinkhole. No buildings were at risk.

50-year family home teeters on edge of sinkhole in Tarpon Springs 06/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 11:26pm]
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