CLERMONT, Florida (Reuters) – Dozens of guests at a Florida resort near Walt Disney World were safely evacuated in the middle of the night on Monday when a large sinkhole opened on the property, swallowing a three-story building.
“I was hearing popping noises and I was hearing people screaming and glass breaking. The building actually twisted and separated,” Summer Bay Resort security guard Richard Shanley said. “It was like something from a movie.”
Shanley was driving a golf cart on the Orlando-area resort’s main boulevard when a family hailed him to say they heard popping sounds and that something was wrong.
A spokesman for the Lake County Fire Department said there were no injuries in the collapse and that resort staff responded quickly to the first signs of danger.
Paul Caldwell, general manager of the 64-acre, lakeside resort, said the building collapsed almost entirely within 45 minutes, leaving only the top floor visible ground level. He estimated the sinkhole to be 100 feet (30m) wide.
Shanley, whom Caldwell called “a hero,” said he saw balconies breaking. He rushed into the building and began banging on doors, using his master key to open some doors and wake people so they could get out.
He said that while he was on the second floor, he felt the building sink about 20 inches and saw the ceilings collapsing. By the time Shanley was on the third floor, he said that floor’s ceiling had entirely collapsed.
Shanley kept going through the building until the fire department arrived and made him leave.
Asked if he felt his life was ever at risk, Shanley said, “Yes ma’am, but I didn’t think of that at the time. I was more concerned about my guests and trying to get them out of here.”
Thirty-six people were evacuated, including 20 from the collapsed building and 16 from another building emptied as a precaution, according to the resort’s executive vice president, Juan Barrillas.
Caldwell praised Shanley for not waiting for authorization before evacuating guests. “Had he not acted on his own, we are confident there could have been many people trapped in that building.”
Sinkholes in Florida are relatively common, caused by the state’s porous geological bedrock of limestone. As acidic rainwater filters into the ground, it dissolves the rock, causing erosion that can lead to underground caverns, resulting in the sinkhole’s collapse.
“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,” resort guest Maggie Ghamry told WFTV. She said another couple with an infant had to smash through a window after the door frame in the room collapsed.
Liz Evans, 57, a bank teller from North Carolina, watched the collapse with her grandsons from a nearby unit that lost electricity but was not evacuated. She said it was slow-moving and punctuated by creaking and cracking noises.
“It was like a rockslide coming down,” Evans said.
The collapsed building had two wings of 12 units each, connected by an elevator tower in the breezeway.
Julian and Maggie Moreno of San Antonio, Texas, were staying with their daughter and two grandchildren in a two-bedroom suite opposite the collapsed building when they heard police in the hall yelling for everyone to “grab stuff and get out.”
Julian Moreno tossed suitcases off a third-floor balcony. As they left the suite their door was already jamming, leading them to believe their building was also sinking.
Several dozen evacuated guests were being housed in other buildings on the property, about six miles from Walt Disney World, the resort said.
In March, a sinkhole under a Tampa-area home opened and swallowed the bedroom of 37-year-old landscaper Jeff Bush, whose body was never recovered.
In 1981, in Winter Park near Orlando, a sinkhole measuring 320-feet wide and 90-feet deep swallowed a two-story house, part of a Porsche dealership and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The site is now an artificial lake.