TARPON SPRINGS — First it was a front yard with six cars parked on it. Then it was a sinkhole.
Anitra Merricks and her family saw it unfold slowly about 6 p.m. Thursday. They had just come outside after the earth gave in with a yawning boom behind her grandmother's home at 709 S Disston Ave.
That was a small one.
They walked through the house and out to the front, where relatives had parked their automobiles, including Merricks' Mercury Milan. Then they heard a rumbling from the street.
"Someone said, 'Look, the house is caving in,' " said Merricks, 29, of Holiday. "We started moving our cars, and then the whole thing started sinking in.
"Then probably half an hour, 45 minutes later, 5 feet away from that hole, the middle of the road, the concrete. … It looked like it was melting, but it just started sinking in."
Two holes eventually combined to form one crater of rust-colored earth about 50 feet deep and stretching from the house to the other side of Disston Avenue. Everyone got the cars moved in time.
"You could probably fit a couple of good-sized vehicles in the hole," said Tarpon Springs public works director Thomas Funcheon.
Firefighters deemed that the house, which was built in 1958, was unsafe for Merricks' grandparents, Virginia Crawford, 83, and Nathaniel Crawford, 90, to stay in.
The Crawfords, who moved in more than 50 years ago, will have to find a new home, Merricks said. Officials also evacuated a home next door. The American Red Cross was assisting residents with temporary shelter.
Earlier in the day, the Crawfords had summoned an engineering company to the home after they noticed cracks along the interior walls.
They suspected sinkholes, which are common in the area, but were stunned when the ground began giving away around them.
By early evening, two more craters had formed behind the Crawfords' home, one 12 feet wide and 7 feet deep, the other 25 feet wide and 13 feet deep. A concrete shed as large as a garage fell into one, and part of the Crawfords' block home was also slipping in.
Officials were investigating what caused the sinkholes to form.
"We don't know why it happened," Funcheon said. "We believe it's natural, but we can't say for sure right now."
The sinkholes snapped part of a sewer line, but service in the area won't be affected, Funcheon said. Police also had blocked off the road surrounding the sinkholes.
Merricks said losing the home, where relatives and friends gathered nearly every day, will be hard on the tight-knit family.
"This is our home away from home. To see this happen is kind of crazy," she said. "You see sinkholes on TV but for it to unfold in front of your eyes, it's unbelievable."
Times staff photographer Jim Damaske and staff writer Demorris A. Lee contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at [email protected] or (727)892-2271.