Crews on Sunday razed more than half of the Tampa-area home perched over a huge sinkhole that swallowed a man three days ago, managing to salvage some keepsakes for family members who lived there.
Jeremy Bush, 35, tried to save his brother, Jeff, when the earth opened up and swallowed him Thursday night.
On Sunday morning, Bush and relatives prayed with a pastor as the home — where he lived with his girlfriend, Rachel Wicker; their daughter, Hannah, 2; and others — was demolished and waited for firefighters to salvage anything possible from inside.
Early Sunday morning, just before the demolition began, Jeremy Bush and an unidentified woman knelt and prayed at the mailbox in front of the home, owned by Leland Wicker, Rachel's grandfather, since the 1970s.
After praying, Bush and the woman walked across the street to a neighbor's lawn and watched the demolition.
The operator of the heavy equipment worked gingerly, first taking off a front wall. Family belongings were scooped onto the lawn gently in hopes of salvaging parts of the family's 40-year history in the home.
As of Sunday afternoon — when demolition had stopped for the day and only a few walls of the home remained — a Bible, family photos, a jewelry box and a pink teddy bear for Hannah were among the items saved. Firefighters also were able to pick out the purse of one of the women in the home.
Cheers went up from family, friends and neighbors each time something valuable was salvaged.
Wanda Carter, the daughter of Leland Wicker, cradled the large family Bible in her arms. She said her mother and father had stored baptism certificates, cards and photos between the pages of that Bible over the years.
"It means that God is still in control, and He knew we needed this for closure," she said, crying.
Carter said she spent from age 11 to 20 in the home, and she had to close her eyes as the home was knocked down.
"Thank you for all of the memories and life it gave us," she said.
The Rev. John Martin Bell of Shoals Baptist Church said he had been with the family all morning. "We just prayed with them," he said. He added that all five who lived in the house — Bush, Wicker, Hannah and two others ages 50 and 45 — were in need of support and prayers from the community.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said 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 now-demolished house; experts say the sinkhole has "compromised" those homes, but it's unclear whether steps can be taken to save them.
Several generations of family members lived in the home at the time of the ground collapse, including Jeff Bush, the man now presumed dead.
Jeremy Bush tried to save his brother by jumping into the sinking dirt hole. He had to be pulled out of the still-shifting hole by a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy, who was visibly shaken when talking about the incident more than a day later.
"I've never seen anything move so fast and do so much destruction," Deputy Douglas Duvall said.
The search for Jeff Bush, 37, was called off Saturday. He was in his bedroom Thursday night in Seffner — a suburb of 8,000 people 15 miles east of downtown Tampa — when the ground opened and took him and everything else in his room. Five others in the house at the time escape unharmed as the earth crumbled.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is conducting the investigation. Detective Larry McKinnon said the 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.
The area around Seffner is known for sinkholes due to the geography of the terrain, but they are rarely deadly. No one — from longtime public safety officials to geologists — could remember an incident where a person was sucked into the earth without warning.