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Authorities end search for sinkhole victim, plan to demolish house

A heavy duty excavator sits in front of the home at 240 Faithway Drive in Seffner. The home had a large sinkhole open in the bedroom, swallowing 36-year-old Jeffrey Bush. Bush’s body will not be recovered; demolition of the home will begin today.
Published Sep. 5, 2013

SEFFNER — The sinkhole that took Jeffrey Bush's life will be his final resting place.

Officials ceased recovery efforts Saturday evening after determining the soil surrounding the house over the sinkhole was too unstable to support attempts to find his body.

The four-bedroom home will be demolished today, with Bush still underneath. The decision came just hours after two neighboring homes were deemed compromised by the sinkhole.

"We can no longer sustain the rescue effort. At this point, we have to move beyond the rescue to a demolition phase and securing the site," Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

Merrill said the sinkhole is a chasm extending down 50 to 60 feet. Bush, 37, tumbled into the ground Thursday night after the sinkhole opened beneath his bedroom. A full day of work Saturday produced no new details on his whereabouts.

Initially, a microphone and small camera were lowered into the hole, but yielded no results. No one has set foot on the property since the sinkhole opened.

The possibility of a cave-in and the entire home collapsing makes any effort to go inside too dangerous, said Ross McGillivray, of Ardaman & Association, a geotechnical engineering firm working at the site.

Buddy Wicker owns the house. Wicker's granddaughter lived there, along with five others. They escaped the collapse unharmed.

Wicker said he was disappointed to hear that Bush's body would not be recovered, but understood why.

"I don't want to see any other person get hurt," he said. "There has been enough hurt."

The unstable ground at 240 Faithway Drive will make demolition tricky. Any work will have to be done from the sidewalk, Merrill said.

During demolition, workers will attempt to save some of the family's belongings by moving sections of the home to the road. Then they will try to fill the hole.

"If we can get the house off of it, there is the potential we can fill the hole with gravel and sand and stabilize it," McGillivray said.

Two homes on either side of the sinkhole were deemed unsafe earlier Saturday.

Testing at both homes determined they were potentially unstable, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera said. The residents of those houses, accompanied by firefighters, were given 20 to 30 minutes to gather their belongings.

"The soil conditions are very similar to the soil conditions of the sinkhole area," McGillivray said.

Though the houses have not yet been condemned, the families may never be able to return.

Meanwhile, residents at other nearby homes were preparing for the worst. Chris Holloway, 21, lives at 244 Faithway — two houses down from where the sinkhole opened.

"We already have all our stuff packed," he said. "We're ready to go."

Even if his house is deemed stable, the family doesn't want to take any chances.

"My grandfather has already said that after all this is over, he's selling the house."

Earlier Saturday, Jeremy Bush — who tried to rescue his brother when the earth opened — put flowers and a stuffed lamb at a makeshift memorial near the house and wept. Friends and family dropped off balloons and flowers.

Not being able to recover his brother's body was his worst fear.

"They say it keeps getting bigger and I don't think they're going to find him," he said. "I think he'll be in that hole forever. ... I lost my brother. I lost everything."

Workers wearing safety harnesses used specialized equipment Saturday morning to bore into the ground to determine the extent of the sinkhole.

Engineers began doing tests at 7 a.m. By 10 a.m., officials moved media crews farther away so experts could perform tests on the home across the street. They found no evidence there of unstable soil.

By Saturday evening, crews had determined the sinkhole remained about 20 to 30 feet wide but continued to grow.

There does not seem to be any immediate danger to other structures in the neighborhood.

"We feel the conditions are isolated and there is no indication from the probes that it is anywhere else," McGillivray said.

Experts are still working to determine the exact cause of the problem.

"My opinion is that this sinkhole has been forming for a while," McGillivray said. "It may have been caused by erosion of soil down into the limestone."

Larry Madrid, of Madrid Engineering, said figuring out the extent and cause of the sinkhole is difficult because of its location directly underneath the house.

Wicker said he never noticed any signs of a possible collapse. Usually, McGillivray said, cracks will form in the walls if there is sinkhole activity. But at this home, the problem may have been hidden below the concrete slab, he said.

The construction of the home, as well as a thinner than usual slab, may have played a role in the collapse, he said.

County officials have gone so far as to inspect storm drains as a potential cause but that was inconclusive, county spokesman Willie Puz said.

According to the Hillsborough Property Appraiser's Office, 678 properties in the county are currently experiencing sinkhole activity. Another 558 properties have been repaired from sinkhole damage in the past. All of those properties are given a reduction on assessed value.

Those interested in donating to the families affected by the sinkhole can go to firefighter-relief.com, according to Fire Rescue officials.

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

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