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Sinkhole swallows a man

Storms, tsunamis, hurricanes are quite usual reasons why people die. Every year these disasters claim lives of hundreds people around the world. But what do we know about sinkholes? Sinkhole

Residents of private Sawmill Road in the Gold Country town of Alta knew that shafts from the old Nary Red Mine snaked underneath their hillside homes. But they never expected this.

After a wet winter, the ground opened and swallowed a 27-year-old school teacher at 9:30 p.m. Friday. He was in the converted garage of his family's home, where he lived with his pregnant wife, authorities said.

She escaped and called for help, but it was too late. State forestry department firefighters found Jason Chellew in a 10-foot-deep sinkhole with no pulse.

The ordeal wasn't over. The earth shook and sank, forcing the firefighters to retreat from the house because they were concerned for their own safety.

So, on Sunday, Chellew's body remained submerged in debris in a hole that had grown 20 feet deep, as state and county geologists studied the options -- which included demolishing the 1978 house before trying a recovery. They were using sound waves to search for cavities in the earth.

"The hole is fingering outward. It's so unstable, no one is going near the house," said Dena Erwin, a spokeswoman for the Placer County Sheriff's Office. "No one around here has ever heard of this happening."

Neighbors on Sawmill Road said Chellew was a popular face in the close-knit town of 7,000 residents northeast of Colfax on Interstate 80. He was a substitute teacher at the community's only elementary school. His wife, whom he had met while teaching overseas, is five months pregnant with the couple's first child.

Chellew's parents, who lived above the garage occupied by their only child, weren't home when he was killed, Erwin said.

"He was a wonderful, standup guy," said a neighbor, who asked that his name not be used. "He'd give the shirt off his back to anyone."

Erwin said authorities did not yet know what caused the hole, but no further evacuations were ordered. Neighbors on the road, which has fewer than a dozen houses, said they are worried about what the geologists might find.

"It's unknown if it was an abandoned mine or if the hill was just so saturated that it gave way," Erwin said. Even as the hole was growing Sunday, Erwin said, the house's exterior looked normal.


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12/2008 02/2009


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