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Demolition starts at Florida home where sinkhole devoured man

By John Zarrella, Catherine E. Shoichet and Holly Yan, CNN
updated 4:04 PM EST, Sun March 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A large backhoe demolishes part of the house and scoops valuables to safety
  • Crews recover a Bible, military awards and an American flag from the wreckage
  • Work to demolish a Florida home where a sinkhole opened up will continue Monday, authorities say
  • "It's really not possible to recover the body" of Jeff Bush, a county official says

(CNN) -- Unable to rescue a man devoured by a giant sinkhole, workers started demolishing his Florida home Sunday -- three days after the ground under his bedroom opened up and swallowed him.

Crowds watched as a backhoe plunged its bucket into the home's blue walls, leaving the wreckage of wood beams and cinder blocks where rooms once stood.

Some snapped photos with cell phone cameras, said John Gauntt, a reporter for CNN affiliate Bay News 9. Others turned toward the ground with tears in their eyes.

Demolition of the house lasted for about three hours on Sunday and was expected to continue on Monday morning, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill told reporters.

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It was a delicate process, officials said, as a county employee skillfully maneuvered a massive piece of construction equipment to scoop up the family's valuables and carry them to safety.

The items salvaged included a Bible, military awards and an American flag that hung near the house's front door.

One woman wept as an official handed her a framed family portrait. The demolition crew worked for only a few hours on Sunday to give the family time to sift through their belongings, Merrill said.

But authorities said they couldn't recover Jeff Bush's body from the massive hole that opened up under his bedroom. The sinkhole -- about 20 feet wide and 50 to 60 feet deep -- was still expanding, they said, and the suburban Tampa house could collapse at any time.

Eight Corvettes fell into a sinkhole that opened up beneath a section of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Wednesday, February 12. The sinkhole was about 40 feet wide and 25-30 feet deep. Click through the gallery to see other sinkholes that have been in the news. Eight Corvettes fell into a sinkhole that opened up beneath a section of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Wednesday, February 12. The sinkhole was about 40 feet wide and 25-30 feet deep. Click through the gallery to see other sinkholes that have been in the news.
When the ground gives way
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Authorities made the heartbreaking decision to stop the search for Bush after the odds against his survival became abundantly clear.

"We just have not been able to locate Mr. Bush, and so for that reason, the rescue effort is being discontinued," Merrill told reporters Saturday evening. "At this point, it's really not possible to recover the body."

The Bush family's nightmare began Thursday night, just as everyone was about to go to sleep.

A deafening noise shattered the peace in the blue, one-story home in the suburb of Seffner.

Then, Jeremy Bush said he heard his brother, Jeff, scream.

"I ran toward my brother's bedroom," he told CNN's "AC360."

"Everything was gone. My brother's bed, my brother's dresser, my brother's TV. My brother was gone."

Jeremy Bush jumped in the hole and frantically shoveled away rubble. But as the house's floor collapsed, a sheriff's deputy pulled him to safety, while his brother remained trapped below.

"I couldn't get him out," Jeremy Bush said, weeping. "I tried so hard. I tried everything I could."

Sinkholes: Common, costly and sometimes deadly

Jeremy Bush and four others, including a 2-year-old child, were uninjured.

After officials called off the search for his brother's body Saturday, Jeremy Bush told Bay News 9 the family was devastated.

"It's not just I lost my brother. There are so many memories in this house," he told the CNN affiliate. "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."

As crews began demolishing the house Sunday, pieces of the family's lives were pushed into public view.

Walls with picture frames on them came crashing down. Baby toys and clothes on hangers were raked across the ground.

Knocking down the unsafe structure is necessary, officials said, to get a better look at the sinkhole and to figure out the best way to fill it.

"Once they can get a better view, then they can get a sense of what the next step is. ... This is one step at a time, because we really don't know what we're dealing with here," Merrill said Sunday morning.

Sinkholes are common in the state, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Florida lies on bedrock made of limestone or other carbonate rock that can be eaten away by acidic groundwater, forming voids that collapse when the rock can no longer support the weight of what's above it.

Hillsborough County, on Florida's west coast, is part of an area known as "sinkhole alley" that accounts for two thirds of the sinkhole-related insurance claims in the state, according to a Florida state Senate Insurance and Banking Committee report.

With officials concerned that more ground near the house in Seffner could give way Sunday, the massive backhoe demolishing the house kept its distance, staying on the street.

Nearby homes were evacuated Friday as a precaution.

The family that lived next door was given about 30 minutes to grab belongings before abandoning the house, which was compromised by the sinkhole, fire department spokesman Ronnie Rivera said.

Though the risky search for Jeff Bush has ended, the danger has not.

Merrill said workers were dealing with a "very unusual sinkhole" -- deep, wide and extremely unstable.

"It's underground, it's unseen and we're uncertain as to what's under there," said John Lyons, the county's director of public works. "So we'll be very cautious going in."

Contractors will finish demolition work on Monday, he said. "They'll pull out the rest of the structure, load it up and take it away."

But authorities said Jeff Bush's body will remain in its final resting place, trapped underground where the house his family lived in for generations once stood.

Check out the latest news from CNN.com

CNN's Jake Carpenter, Dana Ford and Brian Carberry contributed to this report.

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