By Laura Newberry, Josh Solomon, Tony Marrero and Dan Sullivan, Times Staff Writers
LAND O' LAKES — Edilia Villa sat behind yellow police tape Friday morning and watched as her first home in the United States sank into the ground.
"This house, it was a fresh start for us," said the 5o-year-old, who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba with her daughter in 2007 to escape poverty. "It really was like the American Dream."
What began as a small depression under a boat parked in the front yard next to Villa's burnt-orange Ocean Pines Drive rental home quickly grew to a behemoth pit. It destroyed one home and nearly swallowed Villa's, and prompted the county to declare at least 11 others unsafe. From the air, the neighborhood looked unrecognizable: streets lined with TV trucks, the area inside the sinkhole the color of a clay tennis court.
Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety, said it is the largest sinkhole to open in Pasco in at least 30 years. It was still growing Friday night, officials said, and slowly creeping toward a third home.
Pasco County Fire Rescue crews were called to Lake Padgett Estates at 7:21 a.m. after someone noticed that a boat parked in the yard of 21835 Ocean Pines Drive was sinking into the ground, Division Chief Shawn Whited said. By the time crews arrived to the home at 7:30 a.m., the depression had swallowed part of the boat. Within an hour, the house had partially collapsed.
The people who live there had already left for work, but firefighters went into the home to retrieve two dogs and some of the home's belongings.
"We got as much as we could as quickly as we could before it got too dangerous to be up there," Whited said. "For the most part, they've lost everything."
By 9:30 a.m., the hole had swallowed most of the house and a large portion of the home next to 21825 Ocean Pines Drive, where Villa lives with her 15-year-old daughter, three other relatives and six dogs.
"We had all our memories there," said Thalia Chapman, Villa's daughter. "We lost all of our photos, some money." By Friday night, just the garage and the jagged edges of a couple other rooms were standing.
The hole was about 250 feet wide and as deep as 50 feet Friday night, consuming a large swath of Ocean Pines Drive.
A state geologist confirmed it was an active sinkhole. The hole could eventually merge with Lake Saxon about 200 feet away, Guthrie said.
Dramatic video shows the first home collapsing into the hole, roiling muddy water inside it. In live footage shot by circling news helicopters, chunks of earth at the western edge of the hole could be seen falling away and splashing into the water, slowly consuming the front yard of a house across the street.
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Drone footage showed a boat bobbing in the water-filled pit. The earth opened up to the aquifer below, Guthrie said, which explains its pond-like characteristics. A typical sinkhole would have begun to drain by now, he said, but debris has prevented it from doing so.
Sinkhole formation starts with water. Bedrock limestone, which dominates the area, dissolves as it is exposed to acidic water from rain. That can cause the limestone to collapse, creating a sinkhole. They often occur after heavy rain.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco compared the asphalt around the sinkhole to a crumbling glacier.
"It is so soft," he said, "you can almost feel the ground moving beneath your feet."
County building officials tagged 11 homes on Ocean Pines Drive and Canal Street with brightly-colored stickers labeling them unsafe, Guthrie said. Evacuations were voluntary, but residents were urged to leave.
"If we need to come knock your door, you need to be ready to go," Guthrie said. "The sinkhole is by no means stable."
Duke Energy cut power to about 100 homes in the neighborhood east of U.S. 41 and north of State Road 54, though power was restored Friday afternoon. Officials said the county plans to install a temporary fence around the sinkhole's perimeter.
Dozens of people from outside the neighborhood came by to see sinkhole. Nocco said gawkers aren't welcome. They make remediation more difficult.
"If you don't live in this community, please don't come down here," he said.
The county had investigated sinkhole activity beneath 21835 Ocean Pines Drive in 2012, according to Pasco spokesman Doug Tobin. In 2016, the homeowners spent $30,000 to reinforce the house's foundation with 33 steel pins.
Property records show Walter Zadanoff, who lives in Lutz, purchased the 2,200-square-foot, single-story home in July 2015 for $157,000. Property records list "sinkhole activity" on the property as "stabilized" and the current value of the home at $195,092. Zadanoff could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.
Zadanoff's address is listed as a P.O. Box on property records, and he did not have a homestead exemption for the Ocean Pines property.
Maykel Pedraza-Castillo and Yhosvany Marrero-Martinez of Tampa have owned the second home where Villa lives since 2006, records show. The current value of the 1,300-square-foot single story home is listed at $130,163. Attempts to reach the owners for comment were unsuccessful Friday.
Red Cross representatives said they were prepared to open a shelter if more than a few residents needed a place to stay, and that they'll likely place some of them in hotels.
Guthrie said officials were working to help residents save at least some of their property, but those efforts may be futile.
"Mother Nature is going to take what Mother Nature is going to take," he said.
Officials said the sinkhole might also damage the home across the street from 21835 Ocean Pines Drive. That's where Terence and Tisha Doohen, both 44, live with their 10-year-old son, Isaac. Terence Doohen said he was leaving for work at a lawn care company at around 7:30 a.m. when he noticed that the house across from his "just didn't look right."
Looking closer, he saw that its front wall was missing, and that the front yard had sunken in.
The Doohens were staying with neighbors Friday night. Their cats, lizards and fish are with friends.
Terence Doohen said that the whole situation has left him uneasy, but that he mostly feels terrible for his neighbors who lost their homes.
When Isaac overheard that the sinkhole was moving toward his house, he said to his dad, "Then all our clothes will be gone." Terence Doohen replied, "Clothes can be replaced, buddy. Thank God nobody was hurt."
Affected residents piled their belongings into cars and rushed out of the neighborhood Friday morning. Joy Benson of Land O' Lakes lugged photos and small pieces of furniture out of her aunt's home, one of the 11 deemed unsafe. Her aunt, Lynne Dudley, was in California at the time, attending a memorial for her husband, local singer-songwriter Timothy Dudley. He died in November.
"This is obviously a really hard time for her," Benson said after bringing a large wooden ship out of the house. "We've just been trying to figure out everything she needs help with."
Kendra Denzik lives directly behind both sunken homes. At about 7:25 a.m., she heard what she thought was "a loud garbage truck dumping glass bottles."
"It sounded like somebody had a great party last night," she said.
About 50 minutes later, she answered a knock at her front door. Pasco Sheriff's deputies told her there was a sinkhole behind her house. She had 15 minutes to grab her belongings and leave.
She managed to collect some clothing and items for her 18-month-old daughter, enough for a few days. Before leaving, she caught a glimpse of the massive, mushy pit of dirt that backed up to their rear property line.
Denzik said she and her husband have only lived there about half a year.
Emergency workers told them they can expect to be away from their house for months. She said they will have to work with their insurance company to see if they can make the home safe, but she doesn't know if they will return. In the meantime, they will stay with her in-laws. Others have offered clothing and other help.
"We felt a lot of love today," she said.
Only Edilia Villa was home Friday morning when Thalia — who had been out doing early morning errands with the rest of the family — rushed into her mom's bedroom. The next-door neighbor's boat had sunk into the ground, she said. The two began rushing around, gathering a few important documents and their six dogs, and were out of the house in 10 minutes. They are staying with Villa's son.
The Villas said they have renter's insurance, but aren't sure yet whether it covers sinkholes.
"We're waiting to see what happens," Thalia said.
By that point, part of the house had already collapsed, destroying Thalia's bedroom.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura Newberry at email@example.com. Follow @LauraMNewberry. Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TMarreroTimes.