It was Thursday night the kids had already been tucked into bed and I just got out of the shower. My wife and I were about to sit down and watch some television, our usual nightly ritual. Then on Feb 28, 2013 at 11:20pm I got a text message from my friend: “Sinkhole opened up under house. Entire room collapsed with person trapped and unable to locate. USAR on scene, Faithway dr. in Brandon. ”
Little did I know how big of a story this would become.
My police scanner was broken a week prior so I had no access to the communications between rescue units. Luckily my friend Ryan was able to relay me some information as it happened. Here are a few of those text message updates:
"USAR Dropping camera into hole""
"They're evacuating neighbors and moving unnecessary vehicles away"
"They're using a sound device. Having the heli fly away and they
shut off all emergency vehicles."
I live about 10 minutes away from the scene and based on the information I received I knew this would definitely be a newsworthy scene so I got dressed and responded.
I got to the scene fairly quickly and found probably the most eerie scene that I have ever been to. It was a dark residential neighborhood and the house was illuminated by a lone street light. The road was filled with emergency vehicles and Hillsborough County Fire Rescue’s massive Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) truck. But the what made the scene eerie was how every vehicle on the scene was shut off. It was completely silent. It was so silent that the normal footsteps I made as I walked to the scene caused everyone to look my way. It was crazy.
It was really quiet and everyone on the scene was whispering with the exception of a few family member huddled across the street crying softly and at times moaning “my brother, my brother” The reason why everything was so quiet is because firefighters on the USAR truck were using acoustic listening devices that they inserted into the hole to listen for any signs of life from inside the hole. They did not hear anything or detect any signs of life from Jeff. I later found out those devices actually ended up being swallowed by the sinkhole and never recovered.
For the first hour or so I was the first photographer on the scene and the family was not happy to see me at all. I heard them talking about how they were going to do things to me if I pointed my camera towards them. I obviously had no desire to bring the family anymore unnecessary grief so I kept my camera pointed away from them. This is very important to me. When I was a volunteer firefighter I learned that usually the people we deal with on a call are usually having one of the worse days in their life and going through something traumatic. Whether it be a fire where their entire home is gone, or a car crash where they are not severely injured but wrecked their new car. The last thing someone needs is a camera in their face. So I really go out of my way to not upset the families at a scene.
Now I understand the rules and the laws saying that as long as we are on public land we can photograph anything we want. But I tell new photographers to really weigh their options and decide whether or not that photo is worth the risk of being arrested or removed from the scene. Usually it is not and eventually the family will be a little more relaxed and a photo op will present itself, grab it. You have to decide how large of the story is the photo you want to get.
As I said before the scene was very dark so to photograph it I used high ISO and low shutter speed, and locked down on my Manfrotto tripod. The other issue I had was with the white balance, that lone street light caused a orange tinge to the photo. I attempted a manual kelvin adjustment but it didn’t work. I shot the scene in RAW to retain as much detail as possible and adjusted the white balance in Lightroom to bring it back to as it was on the scene.
About an hour later my friend Ryan arrived to shoot video for a client, I remember telling him to avoid shooting the family as they were upset. HCFR set up a designated viewing area fairly close to the scene and we had a great vantage point of the scene. There was only one problem…. there was really nothing to photograph. The large sinkhole opened up under the home but unlike other sinkholes the entire house remained completely intact. The house looked like any other house on the block. At the time none of us realized that this modest four bedroom home in Seffner, Florida would be the scene of an international story.
Eventually the public information officer for HCFR came to us and filled us in on what was going on. She told us that there was a 36 year old male unaccounted for inside of the hole but the sinkhole was widening and firefighters were forced to evacuate the building for fear of collapse. That man was later identified to us as Jeff Bush.
WOW, none of us could imagine what Mr. Bush went through. Imagine laying down in your bed one moment and the next you are being sucked into a hole devouring your entire bed and contents of your room. Absolute nightmare. That sinkhole was later estimated to be about 30 feet wide and as much as 60 feet deep.
As the night progressed fire trucks began clearing the scene and engineers were called to to investigate the structure and the ground. Other photographers and reporters began arriving at the scene as well. Then we got a better picture of what actually happened inside the house from a Sheriff Lt. who was on the scene.
This is what he described. (paraphrased)
They received a 911 call about a building collapse and Deputy Douglass Duvall was the first to arrive on scene. He pulled up to the house and found a fully intact house, after making entry into the home he realized that a large sinkhole had opened up under the foundation of the home and inside that hole was a man. That man was Jeremy Bush, he was the brother of Jeff Bush who had already been swallowed by the sinkhole and there was no visual or audio signs of him at all. The deputy described that the hole was about 20-25 feet at the time and to put it into perspective the hole was so deep that Jeremy Bush tried to reach out of the hole but he was so deep inside that his hands could not reach the edge. Deputy Duvall noticed that the hole was collapsing into itself and widening, he then got on his hands and knees and pulled Jeremy out of the hole essentially saving his life.
Jeremy was at the scene with a few other family members visibly shaken and upset about what just happened and was crying and moaning loudly. It was very sad to watch.
Engineers with Bracken Engineering quickly arrived on the scene and began using ground penetrating radar to map the soil and determine the extent of the sinkhole. Their initial findings showed a very large sinkhole potentially compromising the home as well as the homes on the right and left. All three of the homes were condemned and residents evacuated.
I remembered telling my buddy Ryan that this is definitely going to be a national story. None of us could ever remember ever hearing about a sinkhole that claimed a life. After being at the scene for about 3 hours the PIO briefed us again and told us that recovery operations would cease for the night because it was unsafe. The conditions that swallowed Jeff Bush would surely not be able to sustain his life but he was not actually pronounced dead or alive until the next day. We were told that crews would resume recovery operations in the morning with the arrival of more specialized equipment needed to study the sinkhole. I went back home and filed my photos at about 430am then went to sleep.
I woke up at 7am to take my son to school and saw that already within a few hours this story had already made national news and headlines such as “Florida Man Swallowed By Sinkhole While He Slept” began circulating around the internet and on morning news shows around the world.
After dropping my son off at school I drove the two miles from the school to the scene of the sinkhole. By that time over a dozen live trucks had arrived at the scene clogging the neighborhood streets. Later trucks and video crews from national news networks such as CNN and NBC News had arrived on the scene. The story from the small town of Seffner Florida dominated the news headlines worldwide.
One of my fellow photojournalists from my paper Skip O’Rourke was at the scene and he was already working it. Skip is a great photographer and friend. He was actually one of the people who got me into photojournalism and the first ever newspaper photographers I met when I was 17 years old. He has already started making photos and took over where I had left off last night. I remained on the scene as a second shooter for a few hours but had to leave. I later returned throughout the day to check how the scene was progressing.
Fire rescue still was calling the mission a Recovery operation and they did not have any hopes of recovering Jeff alive. That was a really tough thing to take in for the family and something that us journalists thought was horrible. As far as I and most people on the scene could remember there was never a case in recent history that a person was buried alive by a sinkhole. Let alone be trapped forever underground.
Everything about this sinkhole was unique, the size of the actual hole, the fact that someone was swallowed while they slept, the fact that such a large sinkhole left the house’s exterior completely intact, and the amazing story of how deputy Duvall rescued Jeremy Bush as he was inside the hole trying to save his brother. This story was huge. This story was horrible, and it was happening a few miles from my home.
I returned later that afternoon and found crews attempting to send a robot into a drainage pipe that ran near the home to see if there were any clues they could see. This sent the photographers into a frenzy as they all crowded the truck with a monitor that showed a live feed of the underground robot. Eventually engineers got tired of us and moved us all back and moved the truck into the secure area and closed it’s doors blocking our shots. As far as I know there was nothing in the video that helped determine anything significant of the sinkhole.
Engineers spent the day analyzing the ground using a variety of sensors, probes and radars. Late that afternoon there was a press conference that gave more details of the sinkhole. But the most disturbing piece of news that came from the conference was that they were not going to be able to recover the body of Jeff Bush. The home was scheduled to be demolished the next morning and the sinkhole that took the life of Jeff Bush would be filled with gravel. It would be his final resting place.
As you could imagine this did not sit well with the family, especially Jeremy Bush who tried his best to save his brother. This was very tragic. By that even a massive excavator with an extra long arm was in position in front of the house, ready for the scheduled excavation.
So the next morning the world watched on live television and streamed on the internet as the house began to be torn down. Engineers believed that as soon as the house started to crumble the sinkhole might suck in more of the house. That did not happen. Phase one of the excavation began and during the excavation firefighters were able to salvage items from the home and it whatever could be salvaged was returned to the family. However the most important thing to brother Jeremy could not be salvaged. His brother was still deep inside the sinkhole. After a few hours crews stopped the excavation for the day and made plans to resume the complete demolition the next morning.
I was not able to shoot that phase of demolition because of doctors appts with my kids but I was able to visit the site later that day and saw that the entire house was gone. The sinkhole and grave of Jeff Bush completely filled with gravel.
Who knows what will happen to that property. Will they ever rebuild? Will the Wicker family which owns the property build a memorial on site? Will they simply sell the property? And if so who would buy such property? Those questions remain, but one thing is for sure this neighborhood will have something to talk about for many years to come.