March 1, 2013

Florida man vanishes after being sucked into sinkhole under his bedroom

A massive rescue shifted to a recovery effort Friday after a giant hole swallows up the bed where a 36-year-old man slept.

Florida sinkholes have devoured cars, driveways and houses, driven up insurance rates and caused lakes to drain like a cracked bathtub.

But no one can remember anything this bizarre and horrifying.

A Tampa-area man is presumed dead after a 20-foot-deep sinkhole opened under his bedroom while he slept, swallowing him and everything in the room. Officials have declared the area “seriously unstable” and predict that the sinkhole will continue to grow.

It appeared late Thursday night under a one-story, four-bedroom home in Seffner.

Jeffrey Bush, 36, screamed for help as his bedroom collapsed through the hole. Bush’s brother, Jeremy, rushed to help, but was unable to pull his brother to safety, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Authorities arrived soon after and rescued Jeremy, but Jeffrey remained trapped somewhere under the rubble.

“I couldn’t do anything,” Jeremy told The Times on Friday. “Everything in the room was gone.”

By late Friday, workers shifted their focus to a recovery mission.

Hillsborough Fire Rescue reportedly said there were no signs of life inside the abyss, which was 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

Could it happen in South Florida? Probably not.

“Over here, the geology is different,” said Don McNeill, a licensed geologist and professor of geology at the University of Miami. “We do have sinkholes, but they’re different styles of sinkholes.”

South Florida sinkholes, unlike the Central Florida variety, are called dissolution sinkholes and occur as sand and sediment dissolves through dissolution holes in limestone rock.

When one opens up, it’s generally shallow and broad, developing over several days and settling like the sand in an hourglass, McNeill said.

There has been an uptick in sinkhole activity in South Florida, concentrated in the Hialeah and Miami Springs areas, but “nothing that residents should be distressed about,” according to Nancy Dominguez, managing director of the Florida Association of Public Insurance Adjusters.

Although the shallower, less dangerous type of sinkhole has the potential to damage property, insurance claims in South Florida are extremely few.

Occasionally, small sinkholes will even open up when water mains break, Dominguez said. But they’re “not that kind of catastrophic sinkhole collapse.”

Because South Florida’s dissolution holes move so slowly, McNeill added, “You usually have time to get away from these things.”

The Seffner sinkhole, on the other hand, is more of a “classic” sinkhole, caused by erosion of underground caverns.

Cavernous sinkholes are such a problem in Central Florida that insurance adjusters refer to the area, and Hillsborough and Pasco counties in particular, as “sinkhole alley,” Dominguez said.

Florida is highly prone to sinkholes because there are caverns below ground of limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water. In 1981, a sinkhole near Orlando grew to 400 feet across and devoured five sports cars, most of two businesses, a three-bedroom house and the deep end of an Olympic-size swimming pool.

More than 500 sinkholes have been reported in Hillsborough County alone since the government started keeping track in 1954, according to the state’s environmental agency.

The presence of sinkholes is increasingly putting homeowners in the area into an insurance predicament.

Currently, Dominguez said, Florida homeowners have a hard time collecting on sinkhole damage until the house is basically swallowed by the sinkhole.

“It takes a long time for that kind of catastrophic loss to occur,” Dominguez said.

In some cases, there are warning signs, such as cracks in walls or movement in the foundation of the house.

But, Dominguez said, policyholders almost never receive insurance money for proactive measures to keep the home from collapsing into a sinkhole. The hapless homeowners must either foot the bill for stabilizing repair work, or move out.

“It’s a very disturbing situation,” she said.

The situation was made worse in 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill that gave state-run Citizens Property Insurance the autonomy to increase sinkhole insurance premiums as much as necessary to cover losses. In the past, annual rate hikes were capped at 10 percent.

The law also disallows homeowners from paying public insurance adjusters to help them with sinkhole claims, Dominguez said.

When the sinkhole opened up Thursday night, six people were at the home at the time, including Jeremy Bush’s wife and his 2-year-old daughter.

He said he jumped into it, but couldn’t see his brother and had to be rescued himself by a sheriff’s deputy who reached out and pulled him to safety as the ground crumbled around him.

“The floor was still giving in and the dirt was still going down, but I didn’t care. I wanted to save my brother,” Jeremy Bush said through tears Friday in a neighbor’s yard. “But I just couldn’t do nothing.”

He added: “I could swear I heard him hollering my name to help him.”

A dresser and the TV set had vanished down the hole, along with most of Bush’s bed.

Officials lowered equipment into the sinkhole and saw no signs of life, said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokeswoman Jessica Damico.

“All I could see was the cable wire running from the TV going down into the hole. I saw a corner of the bed and a corner of the box spring and the frame of the bed,” Jeremy Bush said.

At a news conference Friday night, county administrator Mike Merrill said no one can go into the home because officials were afraid of another collapse and losing more lives. The soil around the home was very soft and the sinkhole was expected to grow.

Engineers said they may have to demolish the small, sky-blue house, even though from the outside there appeared to be nothing wrong with the four-bedroom, concrete-wall structure, built in 1974.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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