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A year later, memories of sinkhole haunt Seffner family

SEFFNER — Janell Wicker stood at her bedroom closet clutching a bundle of laundry and eyeing the dog, Baby Girl, who beckoned to her from the bed. She set the clothes down and cuddled the shepherd-Labrador mix. She told herself she could fold the clothes tomorrow.

Then the floor collapsed.

A noise like a truck slamming into the house jolted her upright. She heard screams. She saw the hardwood splitting and the closet falling into a dark, churning hole.

It was 11 p.m., Feb. 28, 2013.

Wicker's bedroom was adjacent to the one where a sinkhole opened a year ago, sucking 37-year-old Jeffrey Bush into the earth. The freak accident that claimed his life and captured international headlines forever entombed him below the Seffner home.

As the family prepares to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, Wicker is plagued by constant thoughts of how close she and the rest of those in the house that night came to sharing the fate of Bush, the brother of her niece's fiance. It has been a year of grieving, of regrets, of asking themselves, "What if?"

The story of Jeffrey Bush's death is well known. Less known is the tale of what that little blue house meant to the sprawling Wicker family, which called it home for four decades. Its walls evoked the memory of countless birthdays and holidays, of births and marriages.

"We were the only owner," Wicker said. "My mom and dad raised us there and we raised our children in that house. It wasn't just material. It wasn't just a house. It was a home."

• • •

Leland "Buddy" Wicker bought the house in 1974, the year it was built. Wicker, his wife and their four children were the first family to move into the neighborhood.

They saw trees grow from thin wisps to towering oaks. They saw one home gutted by fire. They saw countless people move in and out of the neighborhood.

Within their own walls, they collected a lifetime of memories.

For Janell Wicker, 48, the second of Buddy's two daughters, there were three that stood out:

The days she brought her two sons home from the hospital; the day she sat at the bedside before her mother succumbed to cancer; and the day in 2011 when her oldest son proposed to his girlfriend in the living room.

Beyond the memories in the home were things the family kept in it. The kitchen held a collection of old cookbooks, some belonging to the family's previous generations. Cabinets housed antique china that Buddy Wicker, 76, inherited from his mother. And buried within bookshelves were tattered yellow papers from the U.S. Navy chronicling Buddy's career as an enlisted man from 1956 to 1974.

All of it made the house a monument to their lives — a family whose sprawl grew through the decades to include Janell, her sister and two brothers, their collective total of 13 children and 17 grandchildren.

As the family expanded, each of them spent time in the house. Each added something to the location that came to be a sort of monument to them. Only Janell's youngest grandson, born just weeks before the sinkhole appeared, never set foot inside it.

All of it was gone in an instant.

The house and two others, one on each side, were demolished. Bush's remains were buried with the family's lost belongings, which authorities declared unsalvageable. Those who were inside at the time, including Janell's niece, Rachel Wicker, and her fiance, Jeremy Bush, were left homeless for a time.

In the weeks that followed, donations poured in through the Brandon Foundation, which set up a relief fund. Janell Wicker's employer, Lennar Homes, and its subsidiary, Universal American Mortgage, pushed routine business aside to help her secure a new place to live, along with furniture and clothing.

She kept all the emails and text messages people sent her. She reads them regularly.

We're here for you, they say. We're praying for you.

• • •

Rachel Wicker, Janell's niece, is preparing to marry Jeremy Bush, who is haunted by the desperate struggle to free his brother in the minutes after the floor dropped. The couple still lives in Seffner, not far from the site of the sinkhole, with their toddler daughter, Hanna.

Buddy Wicker, who lives at a second family home in North Carolina, said he is working to hand over ownership of the property to county authorities. The heartache lingers, but he is moving forward, he said.

"Life's too short to worry about stuff that happens," he said. "It's in the Lord's hands. We can't just lay around and swell up and feel bad for ourselves."

Since it happened, occasional reports of other sinkhole disasters bring the memories back to Janell Wicker.

"I do good until somebody mentions it," she said. "I have nights where I can't sleep. I don't sleep with the door closed. I can't sleep if there is any noise."

For a while, she drove past the property every day. Now, she goes twice a week.

Wooden crosses, flowers and flags adorn a chain-link fence that borders the sidewalk and thick grass in front of the property. At its base, a stone bears the image of a golden dove and the name:

Jeffrey Bush

7-27-75 — 2-28-13

Within the enclosed yard, a tall oak tree that Buddy Wicker planted decades ago still stands. Nearby, another fence surrounds the hole, a mushy pit of dirt that continues to sink.

Times staff writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

A year later, memories of sinkhole haunt Seffner family 02/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 11:51pm]
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