Mementos, then gravel, cover tomb in Seffner sinkhole

 

Tampa Bay Times

Piece by piece, the heavy machine gingerly retrieved fragments of a family's home Monday. Two antique rifles. Photos from the kitchen. Christmas decorations. A china cabinet.

Through early afternoon, the work continued to dismantle the Seffner home covering a giant sinkhole that had swallowed a man alive.

Then the excavator fell silent.

After hours of taking things away, it was time to put something back, to bury tokens of love before gravel buried Jeffrey Bush, 37, forever.

"I want to let him know I loved him," brother Jeremy had said earlier in the day. "I tried my hardest to get you out, bro."

In the clawed hand of a long-armed excavator, Bush's family placed flowers, a stuffed bear and an American flag.

Just four days earlier, he had cooked them a pork chop supper. He loved little kids, especially his 2-year-old niece. Had he not moved into his brother's fiancee's house two months ago, little Hanna would have been sleeping in the room that gave way.

As the family walked from the excavation site Monday, Hanna's mother, Rachel Wicker, clutched a photo she intended to keep. But then something told her Jeffrey should have it. A cousin added it to the offering.

"He's not going to have a casket," she said. "We wanted him to have something."

The metal hand lowered into the hole. It placed the memorial in the chasm.

The first loads of gravel followed, beginning the work of filling a sinkhole that turned the concrete-block home at 240 Faithway Drive into a scene of loss that gripped the nation.

Demolition began Sunday.

Officials decided on Saturday to tear down the house after deeming the area too unstable to conduct rescue efforts to find Jeffrey Bush.

Jeremy Bush, 36, said he hopes the property will one day include a bench or tombstone so his parents can visit the burial site.

"My mom and dad are going through hell right now," he said. "My mom is waking up every hour on the hour crying in bed. Nobody ever wants to bury their kid before they go."

Adding to the difficulty of losing a child is their inability to find logic in a senseless event, said Wicker, his fiancee.

"They can't figure out a reason why. Why this house? Why this room?" she asked.

In the morning, Jeremy Bush approached news reporters near the property and said he believes officials could have done more to recover his brother's body.

"You see all this heavy equipment?" he asked. "They could have tried harder to get my brother out."

He also asked officials if they could retrieve any of Jeffrey's belongings. They could not.

The home resembled a child's doll house as workers tore away the wall that faced Faithway Drive, laying bare the interior furnishings.

Hillsborough County spokesman Willie Puz said workers carefully tried to salvage items in the house that were important to the family. "We're being as sensitive as we can to the family," he said.

More than a dozen loved ones gathered to watch, some from a tree, as the excavator picked through possessions and piled debris into dump trucks. By day's end, four loads were hauled off.

The main goal was to remove the house without disturbing the sinkhole and without having anything else fall in, Puz said.

Still, a chair fell into the hole Monday, a reminder of why workers wore tethers as they ventured from the sidewalk, with authorities concerned that the unstable ground might further buckle. Over the weekend, news helicopters were kept away, amid fears that the aircraft could trigger another collapse.

"We don't want to see any more loss of life," Puz said.

The sinkhole may be about 60 feet deep, officials said.

Two homes on either side of the impacted house have been evacuated, and Puz said the residents won't be returning under an agreement with the county. It could take weeks to condemn the houses, he said.

The nightmare began about 11 p.m. Thursday after Jeffrey Bush went to bed. No one saw him slide into the sinkhole that opened beneath his bedroom, but he screamed as he fell.

Jeremy Bush and Wicker rushed in.

"We were this far from falling into the hole ourselves," she said, holding up fingers an inch apart.

As Jeremy tried to rescue his brother, Wicker got their daughter safely out of the house and called 911. Wicker's father and aunt also live in the home, but they, too, escaped.

When Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Douglas Duvall arrived, Jeremy was part way in the hole himself, authorities said.

Jeffrey was presumed dead.

Jeremy said his mother is working on having him declared dead, a legal process that can require up to five years though legal experts say the circumstances will likely expedite a decision.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue is coordinating donation efforts for the family, along with the American Red Cross. Donations for the family can be made at firefighter-relief.com.

For now, the family is staying at a hotel.

"It's hard to sleep," Wicker said. "When I close my eyes, all I can hear is his screaming."

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