Miami condo collapse: the missing were a diverse group



On the ninth floor, Magaly Delgado, 80, a devout Catholic from Cuba in love with lobster and Elvis Presley, was eager to travel to Napa, California.

Seven floors down, Chaim “Harry” Rosenberg, a 52-year-old asset manager from Brooklyn who is Jewish, was delighted to welcome his daughter, Malki, and her husband, Benny, from New Jersey. He had bought the apartment just a few months ago and hoped the stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean would help clear his mind after losing his wife to brain cancer and both parents. because of COVID-19.

Leidy Vanessa Luna Villalba, 23, a nanny from rural Paraguay, arrived on Wednesday with the sister of the Paraguayan first lady. It was her first trip abroad and she texted her family on WhatsApp that she can’t wait to explore the city and hit the beach.

The people inside Champlain Towers South, a 12-story oceanfront condo complex just north of Miami Beach, reflected Miami’s status as an incredibly diverse 21st century international metropolis, which attracts a unique mix. wealthy South American immigrants and tourists, Orthodox Jews and retirees from the Northeast who chase the sun.

The sudden and dramatic collapse of the mid-rise luxury tower at 1:30 a.m. Thursday plunged families across the United States and Latin America into a surreal nightmare.

Without warning, about half of the 136 units in the complex crashed to the ground. A few days later, nine residents were dead, but more than 150 potential victims remained unaccounted for. Search and rescue teams continued to work until Sunday to probe the 30-foot concrete and metal mountain for lingering signs of life.

“You just want to jump on the rubble,” said a relative of Maggie Vasquez-Bello, one of the missing, as she sat on the golden sands under the collapsed tower, holding a rosary. The relative asked not to be identified.

While the cause of the collapse has yet to be determined, Surfside officials released a 2018 report Friday evening in which an engineer reported the building had a “major error” where the lack of drainage on the pool deck had caused “major structural damage” to a concrete slab under that deck.

According to engineering and architectural experts, several factors could have played a role in the tragedy: salt water corroding the concrete and weakening the support beams, a compromised foundation or flaws in the design or construction of the building.

The building, which had not completed its required 40-year recertification, was in the process of having work done on its roof and about to undergo major repairs for rusted steel and damaged concrete.

On Saturday, half of the tower looked like a dollhouse, displaying an empty children’s bunk bed and a desk chair and wardrobe in a penthouse apartment. The other half – including the apartment Vasquez-Bello had been in – was a huge mound of metal and concrete. A mother of five from the suburban town of Pinecrest about 40 kilometers to the southwest, Vasquez-Bello had taken an overnight break with two girlfriends.

“We trust in the power of the Lord,” her relative said as waves of white foam crashed onto the shore.

Across Surfside, members of the Jewish and Catholic community gathered on street corners and in front yards, inside synagogues and on the beach to form prayer circles and read psalms.

“I believe in the grace of God and the miracles of God and the power of prayer,” said Magaly Ramsey, 57, as she stood outside a family reunification center, holding up a picture of her mother, Magaly Delgado, on his cell phone.

Ramsey was at a business conference in Orlando on Wednesday and did not answer a call from his mother. Thursday morning, his return calls went directly to voicemail.

“The worst part is not knowing,” Ramsey said.

Tucked just north of Miami Beach and south of the glitzy mall and skyscrapers of Bal Harbor, Surfside is a small, multicultural town of 5,600 residents, a place where conversations turn from Spanish to English to Hebrew, and local shops offer kosher sushi, freshly cooked challah, and empanadas stuffed with beef and green olives.

The vibe is, for the most part, easygoing as tanned women in shiny bikinis descend the palm-lined streets past Hasidic Jews rushing to the synagogue in robes and scarves.

The usual summer scenes – a middle-aged man in Speedos dipping his feet in the Atlantic and children strolling the promenade with frozen yogurt – looked shocking as smoke billowed from the rubble and rescue crews pushed their way through the debris.

Some of the apartments in the building had recently sold for over $ 1 million, but the complex was not as upscale as more recent builds.

Last year, construction ended on an 18-story curved glass and steel skyscraper designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano in a neighboring lot in North Beach. An apartment in this building sold for $ 6 million.

Surfside, a modest seaside town made up mostly of one- and two-story buildings, has largely avoided the excess skyscrapers of neighboring Bal Harbor, an internationally renowned shopping destination with Alexander McQueen, Chanel and Gucci stores, and Sunny Isles. Beach, home to the Trump Tower. The maximum height of buildings in the city is 12 storeys.

While the city is on a tightrope between a small, cohesive community and a tropical vacation destination, Champlain Towers South was home to longtime Surfside residents, including Arnie Notkin, 87, a beloved Jewish teacher and trainer from physical education at a local elementary school, and his wife, Myriam Caspi Notkin, 81, who is Cuban. Claudio Bonnefoy Bachelet, a cousin of the father of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, lived in Unit 1001 for more than a decade with his wife, Maricoy Obias-Bonnefoy, a Filipino immigrant who had retired as Senior Fiscal Officer of the International Monetary Fund. in Washington, DC

Others were just landing for a short trip. Andres Galfrascoli, a well-known plastic surgeon from Argentina, had borrowed a friend’s apartment with her theater director husband, Fabián Nuñez, and their daughter, Sofía, while being vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Miami Beach area has long been a haven for retired Jews from the northeast, and in 1959 the first wave of Jews from Cuba fled to Miami when Fidel Castro took power, but in recent decades a growing numbers of Jewish immigrants from Latin America and tourists from Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Peru have taken over second homes or settled in the region.

Some have settled in the Champlain Towers, built in 1980 and lined with palm trees and sea grapes while benefiting from a heated swimming pool, valet parking, a sauna and tennis courts.

In 1980, an advertisement in the Miami Herald touted “stylish condominiums” with one bedroom starting at $ 148,000.

“Be the first to make the most of the last,” the ad said.

Almost a third of those missing were foreign nationals, according to Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). After officials scrambled to speed up emergency visas for people from more than a dozen countries whose loved ones have gone missing, Rubio said on Twitter that by Friday night many had already arrived in the south of the country. Florida or were on their way.

Many people were furious and frustrated that they had not done more to extract their loved ones from the rubble.

Soriya Cohen, a Surfside resident who grew up in New York City, questioned the pace of authorities trying to locate her husband, Brad, 51, an orthopedic surgeon from Miami. He was missing after staying in their 11th-floor apartment with his brother, who was from Alabama.

Why, she asked, didn’t search and rescue teams have more dogs or boots on the ground? Couldn’t they sing into megaphones to motivate her husband and other potential survivors to keep fighting?

“It could be the difference between life and death,” she said. “I feel like I’m living in a third world country and they just don’t care. The will to live is so strong. I want them to know that we support them all.

Maurice Wachsmann, 50, was also frustrated and wondered why his friend’s body and more than 150 missing were apparently still under the rubble.

His best friend Harry Rosenberg, he said, was “a man with a heart of gold who would do anything for anyone”.

Like many residents of the Champlain Towers, Rosenberg frequented the Shul of Bal Harbor, a large Jewish synagogue located about a mile north of the condo tower. Wachsmann said he was moved by the strength of the community.

“Everyone is there for each other,” he said as a constant stream of locals dropped off water bottles, blankets, first aid kits, wipes and chargers. battery for the surviving residents of the Surfside Community Center.

Dozens of people were rescued and a teenager was pulled from the rubble. Half of the building remained relatively intact, so many were able to climb on their own or were helped to get to safety. According to officials, 130 residents were counted on Saturday.

A Cuban woman slipped cautiously among volunteers holding a tray full of pastries, stopping to hand out tiny cups of guava cafecitos and pastelitos, while Jewish volunteers handed out hot kosher rib-eye steak meals, of falafel and pita bread.

“How could you not get out?” said Joseph Zevuloni, a Jewish businessman from Broward County who helped distribute hundreds of hot meals.

Hours after the tower collapsed on Thursday, he said, he spoke to a 12-year-old girl as she sat in a corner crying. She told him that she was expecting her father.

“You feed, you make people feel like someone cares about you,” he said.

As officials announced on Saturday night that they had removed the fifth body and a few more human remains from the rubble, hopes faded in the community that more of the missing would be found alive.


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