RUSKIN — Three construction workers were walking atop a new underground pipe at a water treatment plant Thursday afternoon when the unsettled ground gave way and one of the men was sucked into the earth.
After a rescue effort that stretched eight hours amid intermittent downpours, crews late Thursday found the body of the worker buried some 6 to 8 feet down in the sand and mud.
The dead man — identified as John Rose, 54, whose hometown was not released — worked for PCL Construction, according to Mike Guincho, deputy chief of operations for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
The construction company is working on an $80 million expansion of the South County Water Treatment Plant, at 520 Teco Road near Interstate 75.
The incident unfolded Thursday afternoon outside the plant.
As the workers walked, the ground shifted and one plummeted into a hole. The soil closed in around him, and only his hand protruded from the earth.
Another worker clung to it.
But before long, it disappeared into the ground.
The call for a rescue came in at 1:31 p.m. Rescuers used a powerful microphone to listen for sounds emerging from underground, and at one point closed a segment of Interstate 75 so the noise and vibration of passing traffic would not interfere.
About 6 p.m., crews began to dig, using vacuum trucks to suck up water and soggy soil as they went. At 9:30 p.m., Guincho announced that crews had uncovered the man's shoulder, then saw his safety vest.
"We're just in the slow phase of removing him," the deputy chief said — a process expected to take more than two hours.
He said he expected the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Sheriff's Office to investigate.
He said it appeared that Rose died of suffocation, but his body would be taken to the medical examiner's office for an autopsy.
"He's been in a bad situation for a long time," Guincho said.
The victim's wife and mother-in-law had gone to the scene as the events unfolded.
Guincho said it was unclear why the ground gave way beneath Rose. He speculated that a combination of heavy rains and recent digging there to install the pipe were to blame.
A regional manager for PCL Construction, Richard Hewitt, released a brief statement.
"We are aware that there has been an incident on site and we are providing any assistance to authorities involved," it said. "We are unable to provide details at this time."
The water plant, operated by Hillsborough County, is undergoing an expansion that includes improvements to increase the treatment capacity and provide more reliability for operations, a county spokeswoman said.
Located by the interstate north of State Road 674, the plant serves Ruskin, Sun City Center and other areas of South County.
The project began in 2012 and is expected to be done by early 2015.
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Staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.