Alabama Residents Recall Day Sinkhole Swallowed a Jeep

By LISA ROGERS SAVAGE, The Gadsden Times | January 27, 2015

Pieces of the old Jessie Dean Smith Elementary School in South Gadsden, Ala., have been preserved in an unusual sort of way.

Concrete and brick from the demolished school were used to fill a sinkhole in a yard at a home on Piedmont Avenue more than 10 years ago.

It took 12 dumptruck loads to fill the 42-foot deep sinkhole, already partially filled with a Jeep Cherokee.

Jordan Fugatt doesn’t dwell on the possibility of another sinkhole on her or her family’s property, but the morning part of the earth caved in just feet from her front door is never far from her mind.

She and her husband, James, heard a splash that morning. It was Feb. 6, 2004, and it had been raining all night.

“He said ‘Did you hear that?”‘ she recalled this week. “I heard it but I didn’t think anything about it.”

A short time later, James called for her to look out the door, sure his eyes were playing tricks.

“He said ‘What do you see,’ and I said ‘Nothing’ Her uncle’s red Jeep Cherokee was broken down and had been in the yard of her grandfather’s vacant house next door several days.

“My first thought was that someone had stolen it,” she said.

But then she realized there was a huge hole in the yard and the Jeep was in it.

Fugatt first called her grandfather, Walter Grambling, and told him there was a hole in the yard.

“He said ‘Yeah, that’s where that tree stump was,’ and I told him ‘No, you don’t understand. There is a huge hole here.”

She said her grandfather was laid back and didn’t seem too worried, so she called her mother, who lived down the street. Her mother said the same thing, referring to the small indentation left from the tree stump.

Again, Fugatt tried to emphasize the size of the hole. Eventually, family members came and neighbors began to wander over.

They called 911 and officials with the city of Gadsden responded, but there wasn’t really a lot anyone could do.

“We didn’t know if we should try to pull the Jeep out or leave it,” Fugatt said. It wasn’t visible above the line of water in the sinkhole.

City officials using a rock on a string determined the hole was 42 feet deep. Pieces of dirt continued to fall during the morning as the hole reached 25 feet by 16 feet, but the depth didn’t change.

Meanwhile, word about the sinkhole with a Jeep in it spread, and more and more people went to the house on Piedmont Avenue to see for themselves.

A geologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama drove from Tuscaloosa to Gadsden.

It was determined that several factors could have played a role in the sinkhole, including the small indentation where the tree root had been, the geologist said.

It had rained about 3 inches the night before, and water often stands after heavy rains, so drainage problems could have been a factor.

Just about all of Gadsden and most of North Alabama is identified by the Geological Survey of Alabama as an area prone for sinkholes. There are fault lines and limestone, and it sits at the foot of Lookout Mountain. All of South Gadsden is prone to flooding.

The geologist said there was a good chance there were more sinkholes in the area and no way of knowing if or when they would develop.

He suggested they not try to remove the Jeep because it would require a crane to lift it. The ground was not stable and it was feared the weight of the crane would cause the sinkhole to grow and possibly damage the house.

The geologist told them once it seemed stable, the hole should be filled with concrete or blocks and covered.

In the days that followed, Fugatt said neighborhood kids would ride their bikes up to the hole to get a closer look, and she was afraid her 5-year-old son would get too close, so they built a wooden privacy fence around it.

“We put it around it until we could figure out what to do,” she said. “We knew roping it off wouldn’t be enough.”

That summer, demolition began on Jessie Dean Smith Elementary to make room for the new high school. It was on the current campus of Gadsden City High School on South 11th Street.

Fugatt said her grandfather saw the construction crews hauling truckloads of the concrete and block, so he stopped and asked them what they were doing with them.

“They told him they were hauling it to Attalla so he said, ‘Well, let me save you some gas,”‘ she said.

An agreement was reached and they made several trips back and forth between the school and his house to fill the hole.

After it was filled, it was covered with dirt, smoothed and grass was planted.

Fugatt’s grandfather died three years ago and the house, still in the family, remains vacant. The porch sags a little more now than it did then, but there is little evidence of the sinkhole that swallowed the Jeep.

“Now you can’t even tell where it was,” she said.

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