Security guard credited for alerting guests in sinkhole building collapse

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CLERMONT, Fla. - A sinkhole was to blame for a building collapse at the Summer Bay Resort on US-192 in Clermont, firefighters in Lake County said.

Firefighters said all guests in the sinking building were rescued and moved to another building on the resort's property, which is  about 10 miles west of Disney World. Authorities said there were 20 people in the building, and no one was injured.

"Our goal is to have everyone have a great vacation for the rest of the week. We're going to do everything in our power to see that happens," said Summer Bay Resort President Paul Caldwell. "My heart sunk; sick to my stomach. I had just gotten a call this morning, very early, and flipped the TV on and there you folks were."

About 30 percent of the three-story structure collapsed around 3 a.m. Monday, Lake County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Tony Cuellar said. Cuellar said authorities were also concerned about another section of the villa, which was sinking. That villa was also evacuated.

Lake County Fire Chief John Jolliff said he thinks the sinkhole stopped growing around 8:30 Monday morning, but that doesn’t mean it's safe.

Crews are examining the hole which is estimated to be 15 feet deep.

The vacationers told WFTV they credit security guard Richard Shanley for zigzagging the three-story building and evacuating all 48 rooms.

"It was just a lot of popping noise, the ceiling was coming down. I had to run literally end to end of the building to get people out. As you are running by, pieces of the building are falling down around you, so you just do what you can and get out and take care of the situation at hand," said Shanley.

Monday's sinkhole, which is in the middle of the villa, is about 40 to 50 feet in diameter, Cuellar said. He said authorities thought it was getting deeper at the time, but couldn't tell early Monday if it was growing outward.

Guests told WFTV they heard crackling and windows breaking as they evacuated.

"One person had to break out of a window because the door frame collapsed. He, his wife and an infant, he had to break the window so they could escape. There were windows breaking everywhere. One woman was sitting in the tub and the tub levitated and that's when she just grabbed a pair of shorts and came out with nothing. So, it was the most surreal experience I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams," said witness Maggie Ghamry.

Luis Perez, who was staying at a villa near the sinking one, said he was in his room when the lights went off around 11:30 p.m. He said he was on his way to the front desk to report the outage when he saw firefighters and police outside.

"I started walking toward where they were at and you could see the building leaning and you could see a big crack at the base of the building," said Perez, 54, of Berona, N.J.

Cracks were visible on the building's exterior and engineers were brought in to assess the structure.

Florida has a long, ongoing problem with sinkholes, which cause millions of dollars in damage in the state annually. On March 1, a sinkhole underneath a house in Seffner, about 60 miles southwest of the Summer Bay Resort, swallowed a man who was in his bed. His body was never recovered.

But such fatalities and injuries are rare, and most sinkholes are small. Sinkholes can develop quickly or slowly over time.

Thanks in part to Shanley, there is only debris at the bottom of the Summer Bay Resort sinkhole.

"You look back and all you can say is, “Oh my God, did it really happen?’ Because you never would have expected anything like that to happen at all, especially on a property like this," Shanley said.

Sinkholes are caused by Florida's geology -- the state sits on limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water, with a layer of clay on top. The clay is thicker in some locations making them even more prone to sinkholes.

Other states sit atop limestone in a similar way, but Florida has additional factors like extreme weather, development, aquifer pumping and construction.