National

Mar 1, 2013 11:41 AM by Elizabeth Chuck and Ian Johnston, NBC News

Sinkhole sucks Florida man from his bedroom into the earth

Officials and engineers are searching an unstable area of land after a sinkhole enveloped a Florida man's bedroom in the middle of the night, sucking him down into the earth.

The man has not been heard from since the 20-foot-deep by 20-foot-wide hole opened under part of the Bush family's Hillsborough County home Thursday night.

"They heard a sound they described as a car crash emanating from the bedroom," Hillsborough County Fire Chief Ron Rogers said at a Friday morning news conference. "They rushed in. All they could see was part of a mattress sticking out of the hole. The floor of the room had opened."

At that point, one of the Bush family members jumped into the hole to try to rescue his brother, who the family could hear - but not see - in the sinkhole, Rogers said.

Rescue personnel arrived on the scene and were able to free the man who jumped in, but not his brother. They were forced to abandon the house as the ground continued shifting overnight. Once they came back with an engineering team and better equipment, they were able to resume their efforts.

On Friday morning, Rogers refused to discuss the possibility that the man was not alive. "The sooner we can locate the victim and determine his status, the better."

However, he added, "We have to make sure we don't endanger other personnel or other people in the process. It doesn't help to compound the situation."

Flanking Rogers at the news conference was Bill Bracken, president of Bracken Engineering, a Florida-based firm called in to assist with the rescue. Bracken told reporters that while the sinkhole itself was 20 feet wide, its "safety zone" - the land around it that was considered unstable - extended out 100 feet.

"It started in the bedroom and has been expanding, taking the house with it," he said.

Engineers are capturing three-dimensional photos of the soil and receiving other data of the area to figure out the best way to stop the spread of the sinkhole, Bracken said.

The Bush family and neighbors on both sides have been evacuated and are receiving assistance from The Red Cross. Officials did not know if the neighborhood, located near Tampa, has had problems with sinkholes in the past.

Sinkholes are relatively common in Florida, but do not always cause injury or major destruction or disruption.

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