Crews on Sunday demolished about half of the Seffner home over which a sinkhole swallowed a man in his bedroom and helped family members retrieve some of their most cherished belongings.
Demolition has stopped for the day and only a few walls of the home remain.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill says the remaining walls of the home would be knocked down Monday and then crews would turn to clearing the debris as much as possible to allow officials and engineers to see the sinkhole in the open. Officials also will determine what will happen to the two homes on either side of the demolished house.
As family members, friends and neighbors watched from more than 100 feet away, Hillsborough County public works employee Dan Darnell started up a rented backhoe with a long boom just after 8 a.m.
Darnell began by skillfully using the arm and bucket to remove an American flag from the front of the home. Hillsborough Fire Rescue crewmen folded the flag properly and walked it across the street to family members.
Somehow, Darnell was then able to tear into the front of the house with the backhoe's bucket and carefully pull forward several of the family items, including a portrait, a Bible, a tall speaker and a purse that had been hanging on a wall.
"The flag was real important to them," Merrill said. "Apparently, there were quite a bit of military awards and decorations, so we were able to recover a lot of that."
Authorities abandoned efforts to recover the body of 36-year-old Jeff Bush on Saturday, saying the ground in the area was too unstable to support a search.
Family members and friends held an impromptu memorial near the home Saturday night, and before Sunday's demolition began, Bush's brother, Jeremy Bush, knelt at the home's mailbox and said a prayer.
Crews worked until late morning, tearing down most of the front of the house, but leaving the entire sinkhole - now said to be 50 to 60 feet deep and 30 feet wide - covered by the back portion of the structure.
Merrill said a fence would be erected around the property to secure it and crews will resume work around 8:30 a.m. Monday.
"Tomorrow, our contractor will move in on-site and finish the demolition," Merrill said. "They’ll pull out the rest of the structure, load it up and take it away."
John Lyons, Hillsborough's director of public works, said the family was grateful for the care Darnell took in pulling their items from their home. Darnell was even able to deliver a piece of the house facade that contained the home's address number.
"It was quite emotional," Lyons said. "They were quite appreciative of the skill it took to pull their family memorabilia out. He took his time doing it. The fire rescue folks were involved along with it."
Despite concerns that the house could collapse at any instant over the sinkhole, the back portion remained standing, and the hole was not visible from above.
"A couple of our geo-technical engineers were there and were observing to see if anything was going to give way as it was being demolished," Lyons said. "We didn't know if any vibrations would set it off to where it would collapse.
Surprisingly, everything is holding up right now. But as the structure gets removed the remainder of the way, a lot more will be told."
Bush, 36, was pulled down into the hole when it developed without warning about 11 p.m. Thursday at 240 Faithway Drive. Sensitive microphones and a small camera were lowered into the hole Friday and produced no signs that Bush was alive.
On Saturday, experts measured and monitored the hole and determined it would not send recovery personnel inside.
“It’s not possible to recover the body,” Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said, later adding, "We're dealing with a very unusual sinkhole."
The houses on either side of sky-blue home have also been deemed compromised by the sinkhole and have been evacuated. The families from those homes were allowed to go inside for about a half-hour Saturday to retrieve belongings.
Authorities haven't said when, or even if, those families will be able to return to their homes.
Officials and the Red Cross are helping Bush's family with clothing, food, and shelter. Hillsborough County Crisis Center is providing counselors for the family as well. An impromptu memorial was held in the neighborhood Saturday evening.
"The family is being well taken care of," Merrill said Sunday. "We're looking after their needs. We'll be looking to provide some housing on an interim basis and then also looking for some permanent solutions for them."
A fund has been set up to benefit Bush's family and that donations can be made through the website www.firefighter-relief.com.
Bush was asleep around 11 p.m. in his bedroom when the hole opened underneath him, pulling him underground.
Jeremy Bush tried to rescue him, but the collapse happened too quickly, and he had to be helped himself by a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy who arrived after another family member called 911.
Jeremy Bush and four other people, including his fiancee, Rachel Wicker and their 2-year-old child, escaped the home without injury. The home is owned by Buddy Wicker, Rachel's grandfather.
Saturday, Jeremy Bush was allowed to place flowers and a stuffed lamb near the house. He knelt down, put his head in his hand and reflected for a few moments before getting up and walking away.
Now, he's also about to lose his family's home.
"It's very hard," he said. "It's not just that I lost my brother. This house has a lot of memories in it. My wife and her brother and the whole family. ... Every holiday, we gathered at this house. Her grandmother passed away. All the stuff to remember her by is in this house, and we're losing it all. You can't replace that. You can't replace a life being gone."
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is conducting the investigation. Det. Larry McKinnon said that sheriff's office and the county medical examiner cannot declare Bush dead if his body is still missing. Under Florida law, Bush's family must petition a court to declare him deceased.
"Based on the circumstances, he's presumed dead, however the official death certificate can only be issued by a judge and the family has to petition the court," McKinnon said.
Neighbors stand by to watch the demolition
Along with family, friends and neighbors watched as piece by piece, the Seffner house compromised by a sinkhole came crashing down.
Some family members and friends couldn't even bear to watch the demolition--one woman dropped to her knees in tears and shook her head.
But there were little signs of relief from the Bush family as demolition teams dug out personal items that mean so much like a family portrait and the family's bible.
Some residents in the neighborhood couldn't help but get emotional as well seeing personal items being brought to the family.
A woman who has been living in the neighborhood for 15 years, said "that’s important to them, just those little things that are so important to them. A handbag, a picture... That would do it for me."
Ken Dasher, another nearby resident said he was glad to see those memories returned to the family. Dasher hopes it will help them heal a little.
"They might be able to get some sense of closure and maybe be able to rebuild with something. Some kind of memories, but it’s sad they are going to start over with pretty much nothing," said Dascher. "People could be living their lives in one minute, then a couple days later their whole house is being torn apart and being shown all over the streets."
Rare and dangerous kind of sinkhole
Florida is highly prone to sinkholes because there are caverns below ground of limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water. A sinkhole near Orlando grew to 400 feet across in 1981 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 collapse of the concrete floor beneath the bedroom was caused by a cover sinkhole, the rarest and often most catastrophic kind. Cover sinkholes occur where a layer of clay sits above the limestone, experts said.
The limestone is pocked with caverns. Something triggers the clay atop a cavern to begin trickling into the hole, and more and more of it drops away until all that's left is a slender land bridge. Then the bridge falls.