Sinkhole a close call for couple
By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
TARPON SPRINGS -- If the hole had swallowed her bedroom one hour later, Constance Nanos would have been in her bed as it dropped through the floor into a gaping, watery hole in the ground. "She would be dead," said her husband, Demetrios Nanos, 70.
A sinkhole, about 25 feet across and up to 30 feet deep, opened under the rear corner of Mrs. Nanos' home about 9 p.m. Thursday, an hour before she usually goes to bed.
The Nanoses and 10 other residents at Green Dolphin Condominium Villas were evacuated from six units overnight. Friday afternoon, city building officials posted red-lettered signs saying that four units were unsafe and uninhabitable.
It will be several weeks before their owners can return, said Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue Capt. Donald Sayre.
Workers had been pumping a stabilizing mixture of cement, sand and ash into the ground under the villas for more than a week to prevent just such an event. They stopped work Thursday night outside the Nanos residence, at just the spot where the hole appeared hours later.
Except for the red-shirted work crews, tractors, media trucks and photographers, the beige stucco villa at 3005 Oak Circle appeared undisturbed -- from the front.
Christmas lights are up. The Halloween decorations have not yet come down.
Around back, however, there's a big hole where the bedroom floor used to be.
Mrs. Nanos, 73, was tidying up her kitchen around 9 p.m. when she heard rumbling and felt the floor shaking. She ran outside.
Three neighbors taking a walk on Oak Circle heard the rumbling too. They walked with Mrs. Nanos to find her husband, who was at the clubhouse playing cards. Then they all returned to the house and peered into the master bedroom.
"Darkness," Demetrios Nanos recalled later. "A big hole."
The ceramic tile bedroom floor and the concrete slab under it dropped into the hole and broke into three pieces. The king-size bed, still neatly made, dropped about 7 feet. The matching dresser slid into the hole and tipped over, spilling clothes into muddy groundwater.
All the other furniture toppled in. A television landed on top of the bed.
"The master bedroom disappeared," Demetrios Nanos said. "The bathroom disappeared. The walk-in closet disappeared. Everything is destroyed."
Authorities say the sinkhole caused no injuries. Mrs. Nanos briefly went to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital to be checked out.
Friday afternoon, the couple carried belongings from their home in suitcases and plastic shopping bags.
Workers muddy up to their shoulders pulled furniture, jewelry and photographs from the hole. They bailed water, using buckets when their pump broke, cracked the concrete slab and pulled it out in pieces. Underneath they found more clothes, a nightstand, a nightgown, some gold beads.
Workers the day before had left some equipment out overnight -- a couple of wheelbarrows, hydraulic rams, a power pack. The hole swallowed it all.
Neighbors from the 84-unit retirement community gathered by the yellow caution tape, cameras around their necks.
Paula Conides, 79, has been allowed to return to her home in unit 3002. But she doesn't like to sit in her Florida room at the back of her home anymore. Workers were digging in her backyard yesterday too, she said.
"It's scary," she said. "I just want to know I'm safe."
The work started after Louis John Catanzaro, 72, realized the ceramic tile floor in his dining room in unit 3101 was tilting. He has lived in the building next to the Nanoses since 1986. He isn't sure when the floor started to tilt because it happened so gradually.
He noticed the cracks in the archway to his family room, where he keeps his Korean War medals and photographs. He had to replace some cracked tiles in that room, too.
His daughter pointed out the sloping floor a couple of months ago. He called the condominium maintenance company. They called Allstate Insurance, which covers the buildings.
Allstate hired an engineering firm to test the ground. The engineers found a sinkhole underground.
L.R.E. Ground Services started to stabilize the area about a week and a half ago, working from the west end of the Nanos' five-unit building toward the east end.
The Nanos unit is the last one on the east end. Catanzaro's unit is in the next building over.
"They should've started between these two houses," Catanzaro said.
There was "no reason" why the company started work at one end of the building and not the other, said vice president Darle Canova. The ground near the Nanos residence was shaky, he said, but gave no indication it would collapse.
Workers pumped about 30 yards of the cement mixture under the Nanos home Thursday, supervisor Tom McKnight said. Work stopped at the edge of where the hole opened.
The drilling and pumping could have triggered the sinkhole, Canova said.
"We don't know," he said. "You can aggravate the area and make it collapse."
If the hole had waited another day, the crews would have finished stabilizing the building, he said. "But we can't control mother nature."
The hole stopped expanding about 7:30 a.m. Friday, he said.
It will take another week and a half to fill the hole with sand, seal the limestone and compact the dirt, he said.
He did not know how much the original stabilizing job cost, and couldn't guess the amount of the additional damage.
"I couldn't even put a price on it," Canova said.
This is not the first time the complex has had problems with unstable ground. At least one of the buildings was built atop a construction debris sinkhole in 1983. Cracks began showing in the walls four years later.
Canova said many factors contribute to the formation of sinkholes and that workers found no construction debris in the hole.
Andrew Staab, 82, said he has seen cracking, water damage and sinking soil since he bought his villa in 1986. He tried to investigate the problems and considered suing years ago, but couldn't get others to support him. "They did a lot of things wrong here," he said.
It will be six to eight weeks before the Nanoses can return to the home they bought six years ago.
Until then, they live in a motel.
"We don't have any house anymore," Mr. Nanos said.
-- Staff writer Ed Quioco and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks