- Associated Press - Sunday, March 3, 2013

SEFFNER, Fla. (AP) — Crews on Sunday razed more than half of the Tampa-area home 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, he and relatives prayed with a pastor as the home — where he lived with his girlfriend, Rachel Wicker, and their daughter, Hannah, 2, and others — was demolished and he waited for firefighters to salvage anything possible from inside.

The firefighters stood just outside the home, gesturing to the family across the street as they sorted items into boxes. As of Sunday afternoon — when demolition had stopped for the day and only a few walls of the home remained — a Bible, a jewelry box and a pink teddy bear for Hannah were among the items saved.

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 — Mr. Bush, Ms. Wicker, Hannah and two others ages 50 and 45 — were in need of support and prayers from the community.

** FILE ** On Saturday, March 2, 2013, an engineer tethered with a safety line walks in front of a house where a sinkhole opened up underneath a bedroom late Thursday evening and swallowed a man in Seffner, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
** FILE ** On Saturday, March 2, 2013, an engineer tethered with ... more >

Before the demolition, Mr. Bush and a woman were escorted by a deputy to the front of the house. Mr. Bush repositioned some flowers from a makeshift memorial to a safer location, then he and the woman knelt in prayer.

People bundled up with blankets against unusually chilly weather gathered on lawn chairs. Several dozen milled about within view, including officials and reporters.

The search for Jeff Bush, 37, was called off Saturday, and officials said the demolition Sunday would be tricky. A heavy machine with a large bucket scoop was moved into position on what was believed to be solid ground. The 20-foot-wide opening of the sinkhole was almost covered by the house, and rescuers said there were no signs of life since the hole opened Thursday night.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said the goal for Sunday was to knock down the house, and on Monday crews would clear the debris as much as possible to allow officials and engineers to see the sinkhole in the open.

Jeff Bush, 37, 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. The five others in the house escape unharmed as the earth crumbled.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is conducting the investigation. Detective Larry McKinnon said that sheriff’s office and the county medical examiner cannot declare Jeff Bush dead if his body is still missing. Under Florida law, the Bush 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,” Detective McKinnon said.