Like many victims of well-publicized tragedies, Jeffrey Bush's identity has been obscured by his death.
Who he was has been a subplot in the crush of media coverage, because how the 37-year-old road worker died is the stuff of nightmares: swallowed by a sinkhole that opened under the bedroom of his Seffner home the night of Feb. 28.
Tuesday evening, Bush's loved ones gathered at Bell Shoals Baptist Church to remember him. There were many in the crowd of about 40 who considered Bush a relative and, in one of the few lighter moments, Pastor John Martin explained why. He detailed the complicated family tree linking Bush to "Buddy" Leland Wicker, the owner of the small, aqua house at 240 Faithway Drive that Bush and five others called home before the sinkhole.
"Work with me here," Martin said to laughter as he listed the many who called Bush a cousin or an uncle, even if the familial relation didn't meet the definition.
There was no casket or urn. Instead, the few mementos of Bush that survived the sinkhole sat on a table near the altar. Two weathered ball caps — one a brown Tampa Bay Buccaneers hat, the other a red U.S. Polo Association hat — and a black shirt. A framed picture of Bush holding his niece Hanna. Bush stares at the camera, blankly, the infant sleeping on his lap.
None of Bush's loved ones spoke; they left that to others. Senior Pastor Stephen Rummage told the crowd who Jeffrey Bush was.
Born July 21, 1975, Bush lived a quiet life of hard work, Rummage said. He went to Zephyrhills High School. For most of his life after that, he worked in landscaping alongside his brother, Jeremy, 36, who frantically dug through the dirt in his brother's room that night, almost suffering the same fate as Jeffrey, but for a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy who pulled him to safety.
For the last few years, the Bush brothers worked for the state Department of Transportation, doing roadside assistance. When Jeffrey Bush wasn't working, he liked to fish, play video games and cook. The night he died, he cooked his family pork chops.
"It was a life that was filled with family, filled with hard work, and filled with good times with people he cared about," Rummage said. "His death was an untimely death. It was sudden. It was unexpected. It was tragic. It was devastating."
The devastation is still being felt by the others who lived at the home, demolished the week after Bush died. The five relatives, which include Jeremy Bush and his 2-year-old daughter, Hanna, are staying at a nearby home paid for by the insurance company, but it's unclear for how long. They are still accepting donations through the Seffner Sinkhole Family Relief Fund, set up by the Brandon Foundation. Every dollar donated goes to the families, said foundation executive director Rich Strehl, who declined to say how much has been raised.
"A drop in the bucket compared to what this family may need," Strehl said. "They were already, financially, not well off."
Bush's relatives weren't the only ones affected. Two adjacent homes were also evacuated. The decision on whether to condemn them could be made by Hillsborough County later this week, said spokesman Willie Puz.
Before the ceremony, Bush's family released doves outside the church. At an impromptu news conference, Jeremy Bush was asked for his fondest memory of his brother.
One time, Jeremy said, he and Jeffrey went fishing in the woods. Jeffrey wandered off by himself. A wild pig walked up next to him to drink from the water. The pig scared the heck out of Jeffrey, Jeremy remembered.
Jeremy's spent a lot of time in front of cameras lately. Telling that story was one of the few times he smiled and laughed.
"That's it," Jeremy said. "He was my brother. I love him and I miss him and I wish he was here."
Times photographer Joseph Garnett Jr. contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]
This article has been updated to reflect the following correction: The owner of the Seffner home where Jeffrey Bush died after falling into a sinkhole is Leland Wicker. His name was misspelled in an earlier version.