SEFFNER, Fla. — 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, 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 to watch 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.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush
Also on HuffPost:
A backhoe is shown on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, after being swallowed by a sinkhole in Montreal . A Montreal business-owner says city officials ignored his warnings that there was a problem before a a sinkhole swallowed a backhoe. The backhoe had started to chip at asphalt near the corner of Ste-Catherine and Guy streets yesterday when the ground crumbled beneath it and the heavy machine tumbled in. The driver of the backhoe was not injured but was taken to hospital to be checked out as a precaution. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)
Workmen view a car with its front end in a sinkhole, Tuesday, July 30, 2013, in Philadelphia. PVI-TV reports the sinkhole opened up overnight on a street in the city's Hunting Park section, with the front of the car falling in the hole Tuesday morning. No injuries are being reported. There's no word on what caused the sinkhole. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A sinkhole opened up on Disco Road at Hwy 427 after a massive storm and flooding in the GTA.
A home sits near a sinkhole, about 100-feet wide and 50-feet deep, Saturday, May 5, 2012, in Windermere, Fla. The family was forced to evacuate the home. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Rescuers prepare to move a dead body found in a sinkhole on a road in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong province on May 21, 2013. Five people died when a 10 metre (33 feet) wide sinkhole opened up at the gates of an industrial estate in Shenzhen, the southern Chinese boom town neighbouring Hong Kong, local authorities said on May 21. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo released by Guatemala's Presidency on Monday May 31, 2010, a sinkhole covers a street intersection in downtown Guatemala City. A day earlier authorities blamed the heavy rains caused by tropical storm Agatha as the cause of the crater that swallowed a a three-story building. (Luis Echeverria, Guatemala's Presidency/AP)
CORRECTS DATE - A car sits in a giant sinkhole in Duluth, Minn. Wednesday, June 20, 2011. Residents evacuated their homes and animals escaped from pens at a zoo as floods fed by a steady torrential downpour struck northeastern Minnesota, inundating the city of Duluth, officials said Wednesday. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Brian Peterson) MANDATORY CREDIT; ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS OUT; MAGS OUT; TWIN CITIES TV OUT
A sinkhole approximately 25 feet deep and 50 feet wide swallowed the home of a Florida woman in June 2012. Neighbors were instructed to evacuate their homes.
More than 800 people were evacuated from a village in China's Guangxi province in early June 2012 after a sinkhole threatened the surrounding land. The hole was initially built as a well to provide water to children in a nearby schoolhouse. The hole is reported to have caused one building to collapse, six to tilt, and one to collapse.
In a Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011 photo, a gaping sinkhole has opened in the bottom of a pool at the home of Brad Thelen in Erwin, Tenn., draining the family's swimming pool. Thelen said the noise of the sinkhole opening under the in-ground pool awakened his wife Chemene on Wednesday night, according to The Johnson City Press. By Thursday evening, it had tripled in size and was not far from the Thelans' home. The family removed valuables and was staying with relatives until the sinkhole stabilized. (AP Photo/Johnson City Press, Tony Duncan) MANDATORY CREDIT
Utah Sinkhole Death
This image provided by the Utah Highway Patrol shows the wreckage of a car that ran into a hole, after heavy rain caused the collapse of State Road 35 that opened up a hole 40 feet wide and more than 30 feet deep. A teenage girl is dead and her father seriously injured after this SUV plunged into a hole in the highway near Tabiona, Utah early Thursday July 14, 2011.
Workers block off the site of a huge sinkhole which occurred overnight in Beijing on April 26, 2011. A section of the road collapsed beneath a truck, slightly injuring the driver and a passenger, who both jumped out the vehicle before it sank into the hole. Authorities suspect the hole was caused by the construction of a subway line.
Sinkhole in House
A man inspects a sinkhole formed in a house on July 19, 2011 in the north of Guatemala City. When neighbors heard the loud boom overnight they thought a cooking gas canister had detonated. Instead they found a deep sinkhole the size of a large pot inside a home in a neighborhood just north of Guatemala City. The sinkhole was 12.2 meters (40 feet) deep and 80 centimeters (32 inches) in diameter, an AFP journalist who visited the site reported. Police, members of the country's natural disaster office and water utility company officials came to visit the site. Sinkholes, formed by the natural process of erosion, can be gradual but are often sudden. Guatemala City, built on volcanic deposits, is especially prone to sinkholes, often blamed on a leaky sewer system or on heavy rain.
Sinkhole with Cars
Rene Crete looks over damaged cars at Buy Right Auto on Friday, May 27, 2011 in East Montpelier, Vt. Schools and roads are closed across central Vermont as heavy overnight rains caused flooding that overflowed riverbanks. A Vermont Emergency management official said early Friday almost 150 people were in three shelters in Barre, Montpelier and Berlin.The Vermont National Guard sent emergency response teams and high water vehicles to the area to help local and state emergency management officials.
A utility worker looks underground to examine the scene where a sinkhole was caused when a broken water main collapsed part of Friendship Boulevard on December 3, 2010 in Chevy Chase, Maryland. No one was reported injured in the accident. (Logan Mock-Bunting, Getty Images)
The late afternoon sun casts its warm rays over the sinkholes which mark the dried-out center section of the Dead Sea in this aerial view on September 30, 2010 in southern Israel. (David Silverman, Getty Images)
A Cadillac Escalade sits at the bottom of a sinkhole in Milwaukee, Wis. July 23, 2010, still running almost 20 hours after the driver fell in. Powerful storms pounded southeastern Wisconsin and caused widespread flooding. (Mark Was, AP)
A street level view of the sinkhole created by tropical storm Agatha as it covers a street intersection in downtown Guatemala City on Sunday, May 30, 2010. (AP)
Green Ooze In Philly
This sinkhole spotted in Philadelphia looks like it's oozing radioactive goo. A Redditor reports that the city actually adds a fluorescent dye.
Rescuers work at the scene of a landslide in Saint-Jude, Quebec as shown from the air on May 11, 2010. Four people, including two children, were killed after a sinkhole triggered by a landslide swallowed their house northeast of Montreal. (Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press/AP)
A 22-ton Los Angeles Fire Department fire truck protrudes from a sinkhole on September 8, 2009 in the Valley Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. The sinkhole was apparently caused by a broken 6-inch cast iron pipe. The firefighters were not hurt in the accident. (David McNew, Getty Images)
John Sparkman is dwarfed as he looks into a sinkhole near Picher, Okla., Saturday, April 6, 2008. Years of lead and zinc mining has left turned the town into a Superfund site with sinkholes, lead-laced mountains of rock, and tainted water. (Charlie Riedel, AP)
A massive, approximately 200' x 240', sinkhole opens up and tears apart the pavement of Soledad Mountain Road, October 3, 2007 in the Mount Soledad neighborhood of La Jolla near San Diego, California. The landslide reportedly damaged or destroyed 6 homes and forced the evacuation of at least 20 others. (Kent Horner, Getty Images)
A general view of the huge crater at the collapsed 'Pinheiros' subway station in Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 15, 2007. Brazilian officials said a passenger minivan had fallen to the bottom of a 40-meter (130-foot)-deep pit dug to facilitate delivery of supplies for workers building an underground railway line. (Mauricio Lima, AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Horita looks at a sinkhole at his home, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006, in Paauilo that was caused when a 6.7 earthquake struck the island of Hawaii. (Mark J. Terrill, AP)
FILE - In this May 29, 2000 file photo, Plant City, Fla. workers look into a sinkhole that developed in Plant City, Fla. (AP Photo/Dale Wilson)
FILE - In this June 25, 2012 file photo, people look at a large sinkhole near Jonesville Park, in Jonesville, Fla. Tropical Storm Debby raked the Tampa Bay area with high wind and heavy rain in a drenching that could top 2 feet over the next few days and trigger widespread flooding. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)
FILE - In this July 13, 1994 file photo, a cavernous hole, 106 ft. wide by 185 ft. deep, opened in the center of an IMC-Agrico waste stack near Mulberry, Fla., The sinkhole, shown in photo taken July 13, 1994, at IMC-Agrico's New Wales plant released 20.8 million pounds of liquid phosphoric acid into the ground below. The company was able to clean up the spill before it harmed the drinking water supply, regulators say. (AP Photo/Selbypic)