Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Public safety

Rules, lack of options led to call to leave man's body in sinkhole

When the earth opened Thursday night on Faithway Drive in Seffner and consumed 37-year-old Jeffrey Bush, it set in motion a chain of events for responders who tried first to save Bush, then to recover his remains, then to decide that the hole that killed him would be his final resting place.

In such events, the rescue and recovery efforts should be governed by a set of rules, according to experts in emergency management. The same rules could apply to fires, earthquakes, floods or rescues at sea.

When it comes to rescue, the first rule is that nobody else gets hurt or dies. Second, the responders should never do anything they're not trained or equipped to do. The third rule is that you continue rescue attempts as you gather more information about what's going on at the scene, with the caveat that rescuers not violate the first or second rule.

"Every time you make an attempt, you reevaluate the situation," said Robert McDaniel, senior fellow at the Center for Disaster Risk Policy at Florida State University. "At any time that the relevant information suggests that the subject is still alive, you consider making another attempt, as long as you consider rules one or two."

During those intense days, as Bush's family waited for news, rescuers were constantly evaluating information and deciding how and whether to proceed. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon called it a "gallant and exhaustive effort" to rescue Bush, then, when it seemed highly unlikely he was still alive, to recover his remains. That operation, too, was eventually considered too risky.

"The problem with these sinkholes is that they can give way and have a small hole open, and then the hole grows larger," said Stephen Kish, a geologist at FSU's Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science. "The ground is falling in. Think of it as an almost cylindrical hole and the ground around the edge is collapsing."

"Think of it like having wet sand," said University of South Florida geologist Philip Van Beynen. "You're trying to dig out some sand but it constantly keeps trying to fall in. ... They're dealing with very, very wet soil. It's incredibly difficult to remove the sediment."

Not knowing exactly where in the collapse they would find Bush's remains complicated the recovery effort.

One factor that may have hampered efforts is the rarity of such a dramatic situation.

"Usually, in a lot of cases, there's a little bit of warning before the collapse," said Kish. "The ground subsides just a little."

Whether rescuers could be better prepared for a similar situation is a complicated question.

"Is it possible that we can train for and equip ourselves for every situation that we can recover? Yes, and we could bankrupt society," said McDaniel, adding that he knows of no technology specifically designed for safely rescuing someone from a sinkhole. "But if somebody came up with a great way of doing that and if it saves lives, I'm all for it."

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