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Reality unsettling for Spring Hill neighbors

(ran PW and PS editions)

Backhoe operator Walter Ploettner is used to being bounced around in the saddle, but the jolt he felt Friday morning was a little unusual.

He was clearing debris from one of the sinkholes that opened up Thursday on Mariner Boulevard so other members of the county's road and bridge maintenance crew could fill it up.

Suddenly, one of the giant wheels on the back of his life-size Tonka toy sank into the ground behind him. Ploettner and his weighty backhoe had sunk into a cavity beneath Mariner that previously appeared to be just a divot.

"It's Friday the 13th," Ploettner said. "I knew it was going to be a good one."

With little trouble, he pulled the backhoe out of the cavity. But there was another crater _ about 12 feet long and 8 feet deep _ in a chewed-up section of Spring Hill that in some ways is beginning to resemble the surface of the moon.

In two days, following heavy rains early this week, about 20 sinkholes have opened on or within a block of Mariner Boulevard between Red Coach and Maderia streets. Work began Friday to repair the three sinkholes on Mariner. But detours will remain in place until Tuesday, possibly longer.

As was the case with Ploettner and his backhoe, people in the neighborhood have been discovering holes at a rather alarming rate.

Thursday afternoon, a small sinkhole opened up under the foot of a television reporter who was tromping through Thomas Toland's back yard on the way to his position for a live broadcast.

By Friday morning, the hole was at least 3 feet deep. Significantly, one side of the hole was shrouded in darkness and appeared to trail off indefinitely.

The underground vein seemed to be headed in the direction of the 60-foot-wide crevasse that officials refer to as the "mother" sinkhole, which might be draining water from all the others.

Toland, 26, fears the little hole discovered by "the TV guy" might eventually threaten his house, which stands just a few feet away, or the above-ground pool nearby. Already, some small cracks have appeared in the walls of his house _ testimony to the movement below.

Jennie Thompson, 78, said everything was fine at her house on Canfield Drive when she left for work Friday morning. But by the time her two grown sons returned home after dropping her off, there was a 5-foot-deep hole in the front yard.

She hitched a ride back home and found an opening that sits within 20 feet of her house and reaches a couple of feet beneath her driveway.

Mariner Boulevard, which has five lanes through the area, normally is buzzing with cars and trucks doing 50 mph in both directions. Friday, it was empty of that traffic. Instead, it looked like a construction zone.

There was Ploettner's backhoe, two dump trucks full of sand, a road-patching truck and a concrete mixer _ even two portable toilets parked at each end of the cordoned-off area.

Much in the neighborhood seemed surreal Friday.

Crews with ground-penetrating sonar were pulling their sensitive devices along the ground looking for underground cavities. Next week, more sensitive drilling rigs will be brought in to shed further light on the subterranean world.

Above ground, people who normally stay inside on such muggy days were milling about the neighborhood to survey the damage. Neighbors asked neighbors if they had escaped the sinkhole plague.

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