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Brandon News

Seffner man thinks brother swallowed by cavern is dead

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Published:   |   Updated: March 6, 2014 at 01:02 PM

SEFFNER - Jeff Bush was getting his life back together when the ground under him caved in.

Bush, 36, was asleep Thursday night at 420 Faithway Drive when a sinkhole opened in his bedroom, pulling him underground, authorities said.

On Friday, engineers used ground-penetrating radar to measure the ground's stability and try to detect any trace of Bush. But family members were losing hope as the day dragged on.

“Deep down, I know he didn't make it,” said brother Jeremy Bush, 37. “There were six of us in the house; five got out.”

Jeremy Bush, who lives in the house with his girlfriend, Rachel Wicker, their 2-year-old daughter, Hanna, and Wicker's father and aunt, said his brother recently moved in.

The younger Bush was staying in a motel but was kicked out because he ran out of money, Jeremy Bush said.

“He told me he was going to live under a bridge,” Jeremy Bush said. “I told him to come live with me. He moved in three months ago. And it got him killed.”

The terrifying scenario unfolded about 11 p.m. Thursday, shortly after Jeremy Bush and Rachel Wicker came home from a Hardee's fast food restaurant.

“I heard a loud crash,” Jeremy Bush said. “I heard my brother scream.”

He ran to the room, flicked on the hallway light and stopped right at the edge of the sinkhole.

“I almost fell in,” Bush said.

It took him a moment to register what he was seeing because it seemed unbelievable, he said.

The diameter of the hole filled his brother's bedroom. The dresser had been sucked in, and a corner of his mattress was sticking out of the cavity. The television set was in the hole, and its cable, still connected to the wall, was pulled taut.

“It was something you would see in a movie,” Bush said. “In your wildest dreams, you'd never think this would happen to you.”

Bush jumped into the sinkhole to save his brother.

“I thought I could hear him screaming for me,” Bush said, wiping away tears. “I tried to dig a hole. I could swear he was calling my name, and there was nothing I could do for him.”

Norman Wicker also tried to help.

“I ran outside and grabbed a flashlight and a shovel,” Wicker said.

When he saw how fruitless the effort was, he started to yell at Jeremy Bush to get out of the sinkhole, Wicker said.

But it was tough going.

“I was up to my neck in dirt,” Bush said.

Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies pulled Jeremy Bush out minutes later.

“The cops asked me to get out of the hole because the floor was still giving in and the dirt was still going down, but I didn't care. I wanted my brother,” Bush said.

Deputy Douglas Duvall led him from the house before more of the floor collapsed.

“I went to the bedroom and saw the sinkhole had taken the entire bedroom,” said Duvall, 30. “I looked down, and there was a family member inside the hole that was trying to get the victim out. I reached down and was able to actually get him by his hand and pull him out of the hole. The hole was collapsing. And at that time we left the house.”

“I've never seen anything like it,” Duvall said. “I've never seen anything move so fast.”

While Duvall helped Bush, firefighters evacuated the rest of the family and next-door neighbors.

Leland L. Wicker, the home's owner and father of Norman and Janell, was not in the house at the time.

County officials, rescue workers, ground engineers and sinkhole experts spent the day Friday looking for signs of life from Jeff Bush and assessing the stability of the ground and determining when it would be safe to begin rescue/recovery efforts.

“I've been told by our outside experts that this site is extremely unstable,” said Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill. “This is not your typical sinkhole. This is a chasm that covers a great distance.”

Workers placed cameras in the sinkhole and used microphones sensitive enough to “detect a mouse's footsteps” but saw and heard no trace of Bush, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Fire Chief Ron Rogers said.

“We are still trying to define the scope of this cavern under the ground here. We're trying to determine what if anything we can do to try and get into the structure or determine whether we can even enter into the structure.

“This is a very complex situation,” Rogers said. “The ground is continuing to collapse. They can't give us an answer, when we can get in there or if we can get in there.”

County code enforcement and the county fire marshal condemned the house on an emergency basis and deemed it unsafe for rescue crews to continue working. Code enforcement also did not allow the people who live next door to return to their homes.

First authorities must verify that the hole has stabilized.

“I was just in my room when I suddenly saw all these flashing lights,” said Mark Jaudon, 24, who lives next door. “They told us we had to evacuate. I grabbed everything I could.”

The hole was about 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep by midday Friday and was continuing to grow, Rogers said.

“It takes up most of the inside of the house,” Rogers said. “It started in the bedroom, extended outward and is taking up most of the house as it opens.”

From the street, the front of the stricken house looked intact, showing no sign there had been a collapse -- except for the crews from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, the sheriff's office and code enforcement.

One man was boring into the driveway with an industrial drill; yellow power cords crisscrossed the front yard, leading from the house and from houses next door. A generator was in place, too.

Crews lowered a cable-operated robot into a sewer pipe to examine the damage below ground while firefighters used cameras attached to long poles to peek through the windows of the home.

Bill Bracken, president of Bracken Engineering of Tampa, was one of the people called to the scene shortly after the sinkhole formed. He said the entire bedroom floor was missing and had fallen into the hole.

By Friday evening, after hours of conducting tests, engineers had determined “that there is a very large, very fluid mass underneath this house, rendering the entire house and the entire lot dangerous and unsafe,” Bracken said.

Larry Madrid, president of Madrid Engineering Group of Bartow, also was brought in to help devise a plan for stabilizing the sinkhole. He said the engineering group has investigated several thousand sinkholes in Florida. He called this collapse “unprecedented.''

Madrid said the sinkhole is still shifting and its sides are very steep, meaning the soil will continue to collapse into the hole. Until that happens, excavation will be hampered or impossible.

Traffic on the street was shut down and yellow caution tape was strung up 100 feet from the front of house. The American Red Cross distributed water to family members, neighbors, firefighters and law enforcement.

Jeremy Bush said a company contracted by Wicker's home insurance provider examined the property about six months ago but found no signs it was in danger of being damaged by a sinkhole.

Neighbor Al Boggs said that about 10 years ago, another house in the neighborhood had a problem with a sinkhole that required 13 truckloads of cement and mortar to resolve.

“It was crazy,” Boggs said. “They came in, drilled holes and pumped in the mortar. I've had some cracks in my house, but I never thought it was that big a deal.”

The collapse occurred in a neighborhood of tract homes, many built in the early 1970s. The house where the sinkhole opened is a four-bedroom, two-bath masonry structure of about 1,600 square feet that was built in 1974, according to the Hillsborough County property appraiser's website.

It has a market value of about $68,000, according to the website.

Jeremy Bush said he's not sure whether he will be able to return home. He seems certain he will not see brother again, though.

“I lost my brother,” Bush said. “Everything I worked so hard for, I lost.”

rreyes@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7920

Twitter: @TBORay

Reoporter Jose Patino Girona contributed to this report.

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