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Plant City sinkhole victim was also trapped in one last year

PLANT CITY — Deep inside the narrow sinkhole, Carla Chapman cried as she tried to breathe, choking on sand and mud.

It wasn't the first time she had plummeted into the earth.

A year ago she was swallowed by another sinkhole that opened in her back yard, immobilizing her for two hours until a neighbor heard her screams.

The second sinkhole that opened up Monday nearly took her life before a police officer arrived and held on to her hands until more help arrived.

"If that cop wasn't holding on to her, she would've died," said her husband, Keith Chapman.

Carla Chapman, 47, already was scared of her back yard.

Now, she's terrified.

On Monday, Chapman was standing in her yard, several feet away from the sinkhole that got her the first time.

She was taking pictures of herbs near the glass sliding door that leads to her two-story house on Berry Blossom Lane. Suddenly, the grass gave way to another hole, and she was trapped several feet below the surface.

She managed to call her husband on a cell phone. He was in Polk County, where he works as an analyst for the state Transportation Department.

Keith Chapman worried about his wife. She suffers from an incurable lung ailment caused by an enzyme deficiency. Polyps form on her lungs and sometimes burst. This makes her lungs collapse, forcing doctors to reinflate them. Half of her right lung had been removed.

He immediately called police. In a 911 call, he told an operator to look in the back yard. After all, it had happened before.

Carla Chapman also had called 911. An operator tried to pin down her location, softening her voice as she heard Chapman whimper.

She asked her to relax. Chapman screamed.

"Help me, I'm in the groooouuund!"

Chapman was in the hole at least 25 minutes before Officer William Osmanski arrived. Only her fingertips peeked out from the hole, about 2 feet wide and 5 feet deep when he got there.

He wrapped his arms around Chapman's wrists and reassured her.

"All right! All right, sweetheart. I've got you," Osmanski said.

She screamed hysterically and eventually passed out. Sand pressed against her chest and made it difficult for her to breathe. Osmanski held up her head to keep her from suffocating. He said he lightly slapped her face to revive her until backup arrived.

"It looked like quicksand," he said. "The more she was flailing, the more she sunk in."

Two firefighters and another police officer arrived minutes later and pulled her to safety. She was covered in mud from head to toe and barely responsive.

Both Osmanski and Chapman were treated at a hospital for exhaustion. Chapman's husband said she also had deep bruises and a stomachache.

Osmanski on Tuesday was feeling a little better about things.

In 22 years as a police officer, he had never saved someone. He had never seen anything like what happened Monday. And nearly two years after a kidney transplant, both he and his wife, Susan, were happy he was still working that day.

"After yesterday, I truly believe that this was a reason why I became a police officer," Osmanski, 60, said.

His family planned to celebrate their hero Tuesday night with a pizza dinner.

Carla Chapman wasn't up to celebrating. Exhausted, she slept through the day while her husband met with Terry Doolittle, a plans examiner and building inspector for Plant City.

He showed Doolittle the first sinkhole and told him it led to a big spring under the house, according to a geotechnical survey. The second sinkhole happened while the couple was still dealing with lawyers and insurance agents from the first time.

The first hole was filled and covered by a metal table to prevent another fall. Yellow police tape blocked off the second hole.

Other sinkholes have been found in the area, but Doolittle said it was not a rampant problem. He said he didn't see cracks around Chapman's house except for one in the floor leading to the back yard. He said it may have been a normal stress crack from homes being built on sand.

"So far, you're fortunate it hasn't affected your house," Doolittle told Chapman. But Chapman doesn't plan to stay for long.

He said he and his wife were the first of several neighbors to file a sinkhole claim. Other homes have holes, cracks in the walls and caved-in ceilings.

The couple moved from New York to Florida in 2005. Carla Chapman used to teach nursing assistants before she had more problems with her lungs. The couple bought the Plant City house in 2006 because the houses were new and the neighborhood seemed nice. But two backyard sinkholes trapping Chapman was too much.

"I'm sure she would like to be out of here as soon as possible, and so would I," Keith Chapman said. "I mean, I almost lost her this time."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ileana Morales can be reached at (813)226-3386 or imorales@sptimes.com.

Plant City sinkhole victim was also trapped in one last year 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 10:40pm]
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