Curious onlookers joined Faithway Drive residents and the relatives of a man swallowed in a yawning sinkhole under his home to watch as county crews used a massive backhoe to destroy the house Sunday.
The body of Jeffrey Bush, 37, disappeared into the hole that opened inside his bedroom Thursday night. His brother, Jeremy, tried to pull Bush out, but was unable. Jeremy Bush's girlfriend, Rachel Wicker, and their daughter, Hannah, 2, escaped unharmed.
County officials confirmed Sunday that there was no way of recovering Jeffrey Bush's body.
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.
The backhoe, with an extended hydraulic arm, parked about 40 feet away and began tearing at the front of the small cinderblock and wood house Sunday morning as relatives of Bush watched from across the street.
Little by little, the inside of the home was revealed to the family, which hugged each other and wept at times.
Glimpses included family pictures still hanging on the walls, clothes hung in closets and the tops of dressers covered with personal items.
Backhoe operator Dan Darnell alternately tore at the roof and sides of the building with splintering ferocity and gently gathered small items with the huge bucket, once scooping up a purse left on a dresser.
The family cheered.
Some personal items were deposited in the front yard so firefighters could collect them and cart them in boxes across the street to the waiting family.
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.
Wanda Carter, aunt of Rachel Wicker and daughter of Leland Wicker, who has owned the home since the 1970s, 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 it was knocked down.
"Thank you for all of the memories and life it gave us," she said.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said that the Bush family appreciated the skill Darnell exhibited in extracting the personal items.
The family, he said, was experiencing a range of emotions, watching the home that was theirs for three generations ripped down and knowing that Bush was buried beneath it.
"This family is close-knit," Merrill said.
John Lyons, director of the county's public utilities department, said the demolition would continue today, with contractors dragging debris a safe distance from the home to be collected and hauled away.
The sinkhole could not be seen from outside the structure, but Hillsborough County emergency workers said houses next door could be in danger of collapsing if the hole widens.
Geotechnical engineers were there Sunday to see if vibration caused by the demolition would widen the 20-foot-wide hole inside the home, and possibly endanger nearby structures.
"Surprisingly," said Lyons, "everything is holding up."
They will examine the cavern once the debris is removed and figure out how to stabilize the hole so that it doesn't get any larger.
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.
J.W. Carr, pastor of the nearby Faith Baptist Church, addressed the tragedy in his sermon Sunday morning, saying that out of this incident, there came some good.
People who lived on the street didn't all know each other, he said, but now they have formed a close group offering support for one of their own.
"What a blessing it is that came out of such a tragedy," he said. "There is a different spirit in that neighborhood."
Carr, who has offered services in his 60-member church for 53 years, lives on Faithway Drive, but does not know the family who had lived in the home.
He wasn't planning on talking about it, but got up at 2:30 a.m. Sunday and wrote a new sermon focusing on opportunities opened by tragedies.
He plans a collection to benefit the family and to offer up a "deacon's fund" which is only about $200 and is kept for emergencies.
"It's not much," he said. "We're just hoping to help the family financially and, I hope, spiritually if God permits."
He said he went to the home Sunday morning before services and spoke with Jeremy Bush.
"I prayed before I went over there," he said, "hoping I was doing the right thing."
He had never met Jeremy Bush, Carr said. The two talked and Carr told him about the collection for the family and Bush thanked him, hugged him.
"He thanked me so much, I almost came to tears," the preacher said. "There is no human answer as to why these things happen."