Jeremy Bush kneeled outside the home that now marks the tomb of his older brother. He laid flowers, bowed his head, blew a kiss.
Then, an hour later Sunday morning, a backhoe began to tear apart the concrete-block house at 240 Faithway Drive where a sinkhole opened Thursday night and swallowed Jeffrey Bush, 37, into the earth.
It was a delicate demolition.
Efforts to find the buried man have ceased. There were "no environmental conditions inside the sinkhole that could sustain human life," the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office reported Sunday after conducting a death investigation.
But crews sought to salvage family heirlooms.
As they positioned the heavy equipment, they did not know whether the first strike would plunge the house into the hole.
"Once they start touching it," said Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, "it will do whatever it's going to do."
Merrill, who was at the house Sunday, has described the hole under it as a "chasm" that may be 60 feet deep. And it was too unstable to continue looking for a body, authorities said.
• • •
The man's family gathered across the street on one of the coldest mornings of the year, seeking respite with space heaters and blankets.
They watched the long boom extend and the bucket approach, tentatively at first, to scoop up an American flag that had been flying outside the home. Firefighters in the street folded it into a triangle and handed it to them.
The machine pressed on.
Blocks tumbled. Wood splintered. Walls fell, revealing beds, televisions, dressers and framed photos.
The backhoe operator combed for treasured objects. The family cried and applauded when he unearthed the Bible of their late matriarch, Mary Leona Wicker, who, between its aged pages, had tucked baptism certificates.
Afterward, the family hugged the operator and thanked him.
"They treated our stuff like it was theirs," said 27-year-old Julie Stewart, "like it was their grandmother's stuff."
Among other things salvaged: an old portrait, a purse, a jewelry box and the address number of the house, preserved on a plank.
The demolition stopped just over two hours after it began. Crews began to erect a fence around the half-standing home, and said they would return this morning to keep working.
They hope to get a better look at the sinkhole that presumably killed Jeffrey Bush.
His cousin Jordan Wheeler, 20, described him as a good, quiet man who had gone to bed early that night because his job with a Florida Department of Transportation road crew required him to start before sunrise.
• • •
As Bush slept about 11 p.m. Thursday, a sinkhole opened beneath his bedroom and sucked him and the furniture into the ground. Hearing screams for help, Jeremy Bush, 36, rushed in to try to save him but became entrapped in the sinkhole, too.
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A deputy responding to a 911 call made by a woman in the home found Jeremy in the churning hole and pulled him to safety.
Five of the six people inside the home, which was built in 1974, got out safely. But no one was able to rescue Jeffrey Bush.
Without his body, the family now will have to petition the court system to have him legally declared dead, the Sheriff's Office said.
Early Saturday, officials deemed two homes beside the sinkhole as unsafe also, although they had not been condemned.
Testing at both homes determined they were potentially unstable, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera said, and the residents of those houses were given 20 to 30 minutes to gather their belongings before being evacuated.
The American Red Cross said Sunday that those residents have somewhere to stay, one aided by a church and the other by family.
An unnamed donor, the Red Cross said, has come forward to help the family that lost its house to the sinkhole, offering the possibility of a permanent home.
Times staff writer Rich Shopes contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.