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Radiografía de la tragedia de Surfside

A Deep Analysis of the Surfside Tragedy: Victims, Heroes, and a Falling Building

The collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Miami, Florida, disrupted the lives of dozens of families. Right now, answers are being sought to explain the collapse, the search for the missing persons continues and the actions of the authorities are being evaluated

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No matter how great the political, social, or cultural differences may be, human solidarity in extreme situations usually comes to the fore when it is most needed. Natural disasters, industrial accidents, or landslides, such as the one in Surfside, are perfect examples of how authorities, rescuers, philanthropists (known or anonymous), and citizens come together to support the victims and their families.

There are also exceptions. There are those who take advantage of the crisis to profit. That is undoubtedly true. But there is a certain resilience in human beings. After great tragedies, we become stronger.

The victims of the tragedy

The early morning of June 24 was a turning point in the lives of dozens of families in Miami. The Champlain Towers South building in Miami collapsed, taking with it the lives of 46 people. Dozens are still missing and the chances of their survival are practically zero, barring a miracle.

This Wednesday, June 7, authorities gave the news that was feared: rescuers moved from the phase of searching for survivors, to the recovery of bodies; this after two weeks of intense and tireless efforts to save lives.

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Raide Jadallah told the families that after searching all areas of debris, authorities have come to the conclusion that it will now be almost impossible to find any living people.

There were not only Americans in the building, but also residents from all over Latin America and from other states in the USA. A small sample of the great diversity of Florida.

According to a BBC report, the collapse greatly affected the Jewish community of Miami, as this small town within Miami-Dade “is home to a large and thriving Jewish community.”

Some of the Jewish victims were also Latinos. This is the case of Leon Oliwkowicz and Cristina Beatriz Elvira, a Venezuelan couple who had only been in the United States for a few days after fleeing the economic, political, and social crisis unleashed by Chavismo in the South American country.

According to USA Today, “the couple were part of a large Jewish community, and among more than a dozen members of the Shul of Bar Harbour who lived in the collapsed portion of Champlain Towers.” Leon was 80 years old and Cristina 74, and they also had four children and 11 grandchildren.

On July 9, the death of several Paraguayan citizens was also confirmed. The local Paraguayan press reported that up to six citizens were in the building.

The newspaper Última Hora reported that the names are Luis Pettengill, Sophia López Moreira, Lady Luna Villalba, and three minors. According to the Foreign Ministry, both Luis and Sophia were found dead along with one of their children. López Moreira was the wife of Pettengill, a Paraguayan businessman, and was also the sister of Paraguay’s first lady Silvana López Moreira, who traveled to Miami after the collapse.

The President of Paraguay, Mario Abdo Benítez, was set to fly this Friday to Miami together with the first lady after the discovery of the bodies of three of their relatives missing in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building was confirmed.

Lady Luna is also a painful case, as she worked as the nanny of the Paraguayan first lady during the last weeks. She was in the United States on her first trip out of Paraguay because she was offered to take care of Sophia’s three children so that she could get to know the sea and also to help pay for her nursing studies.

There are at least three Uruguayan citizens missing, too: a married couple and an 82-year-old woman. There are a more Argentines, 9 in total, according to the newspaper El País, some of them are “Andrés Galfrascoli, a 44-year-old plastic surgeon; his partner, Fabián Nuñez, 55; and Sofía Galfrascoli Nuñez, five years old, their daughter.”

Radiografía de la tragedia de Surfside
A man visits the improvised monument for victims and missing persons from the building. (EFE)

Inside the building there were also people who fled Castro’s tyranny. Elena Chavez, 88, and her daughter, Elena Blasser, 64, are two of the missing. The Miami Herald dedicated an article to these Cuban women who stoically fled the terrorizing Castro tyranny when Blasser was just a child.

“The mother/daughter pair fled Cuba during Castro’s revolution when Elena Blasser was only a little girl. They spent several years in New York and then moved to Puerto Rico, where Blasser spent the majority of her upbringing. The family came to Miami in the late ‘70s and have stayed ever since,” the piece reads.

According to the Miami Herald, both Elena and her mother “had plans on Thursday, June 24.” Both were planning, for quite some time, “a new bicycle to their six-year-old grandson (great grandson for Chavez), a belated birthday present they’d been promising since April. They were going to pick him up, bring him to lunch and take him to pick out his new wheels.”

Pablo Rodriguez, Elena Blasser’s son and Mrs. Chavez’s grandson, described his mother as “a force of nature, very strong-willed and passionate (…) She was my best friend, we talked every day”.

He also praised his grandmother as a person full of energy: “She still worked, she had friends, they’d go to the theater, go out to dinner, travel to Europe, go on cruises.”

They were not the only victims originally from Cuba. Antonyo and Gladys Lozano, aged 83 and 79 respectively, were to celebrate their 59th anniversary in July. The couple’s bodies were among the first found after the collapse.

There is the case of Claudio Bonnefoy, 85, who was confirmed as one of the victims of the collapse. Claudio was a cousin of Alberto Bachelet, who is the father of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Another of the deceased was Luis Bermudez, a 26-year-old Puerto Rican man who suffered from muscular dystrophy and was in a wheelchair. His family and friends described him as a person with a big heart.

Hilda Noriega, 92, was another of those found dead in the rubble of the building. According to USA Today, “She was the mother of Carlos Noriega, the police chief of North Bay Village, an island community about 4 miles southeast of Surfside.” She was in the midst of planning to sell her condo in Champlain Towers and move in with her son and daughter-in-law.

Colombians Luis Fernando Barth, 51, his wife Catalina Gomez, 44, and their 14-year-old daughter, Valeria, were also in the building and are missing. They, like so many other families who traveled from Latin America, were visiting Miami to get the COVID vaccine; they had already received their two doses and were ready to return to Colombia.

Two American brothers, who were exemplary parents and doctors, were also found lifeless in the rubble. “A chance to visit his ailing, elderly father in Boynton Beach drew Gary Cohen to South Florida during the last week in June from his home in Alabama. The 58-year-old stayed with his younger brother, Brad Cohen, 51, at his condo on the 11th floor of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside,” the Herald explained.

There is one particularly sad story. One of the rescue crews found the body of a 7-year-old girl: she was the daughter of one of the firefighters on the scene. According to the local media, “the girl’s father put his jacket over her body and placed a small American flag on the stretcher.”

Members of the Coral Gables fire rescue team visiting the makeshift memorial near the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building the day after the demolition of the remains of the building in Surfside, Florida, July 5, 2021. (EFE)

There were also people who miraculously survived the disaster. Susana Alvarez, 62, who lived on the 10th floor of the Champlain Towers South building, gave an emotional interview to NPR explaining how she managed to survive leaving a harrowing testimony:

“There were two men and a young man with us, and they were helping us. And there was an older lady and they were helping us out of the rubble. And when we got outside again, all I could hear were the people screaming. They were screaming, help, help. Someone help us. They were screaming. There was [sic] people alive in there,” said Susana after explaining how she lived through the collapse and managed, by some miracle, to get out of the terrifying scene alive.

Susana, in the same interview, explained that they were a close-knit community and now she lost everything, including her cat Mía, who was her companion until the collapse. Fortunately, she still has work and people throughout the area are being very kind, gentle, and helpful.

“I’ll be all right. I have a good job, and I’m not destitute. But I am homeless right now. But I’ll – I know I can get myself back up on my feet. I know it. But the kindness of people has been phenomenal. From the man who hugged me when I went out there to that beach, and I was all alone out there – and I have no idea who he was – to the security guard in the building next door – the luxury building next door who came out and grabbed me and said, you’re coming with me. All my friends were giving me luggage and clothes and things.”

Disagreements, finances and imminent deterioration: the traces of the collapse at Surfside

Surfside is a complex case, not only because of the tragedy but also because of the search for answers. After the collapse, survivors filed at least four lawsuits against the condominium’s homeowners association. The accusation is based on reckless and negligent conduct for allegedly failing to address the structural damage to the building.

After the collapse of the towers in the Champlain Towers South, documents, letters, meeting minutes, e-mails, and testimonies of the residents came to light revealing that the deterioration of the building became evident more than three years ago and according to the allegations the necessary repairs were not attended in time.

Although the reasons for the collapse are yet to be discovered and it is not known if there were construction faults from the beginning, what is certain is that there were serious warnings of damage that had to be attended to and that endangered the stability of the structure.

“I knocked on the doors of several neighbors, there was no answer. I ran to the exit, opened the doors leading to the outside staircase, and saw the devastation,” Pablo Rodriguez wrote in a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County court to which the BBC had access; his mother and grandmother are still missing.

The document states that the condominium association, “through its own reckless and negligent conduct, caused a catastrophic fatal collapse.”

Photo of June 25th of the collapsed building. The other part was already demolished. (EFE)

In fact, a letter in April 2020 from the condo association addressed to apartment owners warned that the deterioration of the concrete was accelerating and that the damage “would begin to multiply exponentially”.

The warnings began to emerge given that current regulations establish that buildings 40 years old must undergo an inspection to guarantee their habitability.

The letter was signed by Champlain Towers South association president Jean Wodnicki, who was trying to explain to residents why a renovation that cost about $9 million in 2018 had risen to nearly $16 million three years later.

“Observable damage, such as in the garage, has significantly worsened since the initial inspection (in 2018),” the letter states, adding that there are cracked concrete structures.

The letter references a 2018 inspection by engineering consultant Frank Morabito, who indicated that there were “abundant cracks” and spalling in the building’s subway parking garage.

Unanswered inconsistencies

Steve Rosenthal, another survivor who lived in apartment 705, states in his lawsuit that the residents “received no warnings of an impending catastrophe.”

Likewise, Susana Alvarez, told NPR that in 2018 she participated in a meeting between owners and representatives of the Surfside mayor’s office and that on that occasion no one told them that the building was in poor condition.

“No one ever, ever, ever told us that this – that that building was in such bad shape – no one, no one,” she emphasized.

According to the Miami Herald, a month after the 2018 technical report was released, a city hall official in charge of building issues, identified as Rosendo Prieto, told Champlain Towers neighbors that the building was “in very good shape.”

Did costs and disagreements delay repairs?

A report by The Washington Post reveals that the condominium association lived in constant conflict due to resignations by its members tired of the lack of agreements between them and the owners.

The newspaper notes that Anette Goldstein resigned as president of the condo association in 2019, apparently out of frustration at what she saw as a slow response to a technical report released the previous year that identified “structural damage” to the building.

“We work for months to go in one direction and at the very last minute objections are raised that should have been discussed and resolved right in the beginning,” Goldstein wrote in a September 2019 resignation letter.

Experts warn that it is too early to draw conclusions about the causes of the collapse, but recall that while inspections determined “major structural damage,” they did not warn of the possibility of imminent collapse.

The building “was sinking”

A study conducted by Florida International University and headed by geologist Shimon Wdowinski in 2020 detected subsidence of up to 2 millimeters per year in the area where the Champlain Towers South condominium is located. The phenomenon occurred between 1993 and 1999.

As Wdowinski explains, the building was the only place in the area where subsidence was detected; however, the expert recently clarified that this alone does not explain the tragedy.

“We noticed that in the area where the building was located there was a considered subsidence (…) the data we analyzed were from the ’90s, then it was impossible to know which block of the building was going to sink,” the specialist explained to W Radio.

“It is difficult to know the cause and if it happened because of the sinking or if something happened in the structure of the building. The engineer who is doing the investigation must establish the real reason,” he added.

“The bottom line is that’s not an old building, and 40-year inspection or not, that kind of thing should not be happening,” Mayor Charles Burkett of Surfside told reporters in the wake of the collapse, the Miami Herald reported.

Joseph Philip Colaco, a structural engineer in Florida, told EFE that he is handling the hypothesis of “progressive collapse” and that everything could have started from the roof; although he warned that it is premature to venture conclusions.

According to Mayor Burkett, the roof of the building was undergoing repairs, so it will be necessary to determine if the materials or the weight of the tools used were a determining factor.

“If the contractors placed heavy machinery or made holes near columns, to give some examples, the roof could have collapsed (…) which ends up producing the so-called progressive collapse,” Colaco told the news agency after repeatedly watching the video of the collapse.

The sudden collapse of a residential building is not something that happens often, and why the structure collapsed is a giant unknown; however, the images and the studies carried out on the building leave certain clues.

Lucia Valbuena, an engineer from the University of South Florida, explained to El American some of the possible reasons that may explain the collapse:

“Even though there is not a confirmed answer as to why the Surfside building collapsed, there are multiple possible reasons for this. The area that collapsed first was the slab right above the underground parking garage. It can be observed in multiple images that the slab is completely detached from the building’s vertical supporting columns.

This revealed that there was not enough steel reinforcement at the slab-to-column connections and this could have repeated at each floor. The investigation team would have to look closely at the design and construction drawings to determine if the number, size, and location of the steel reinforcing bars shown was actually what was built,” Valbuena said.

“Another possible reason or contribution to this catastrophic collapse is the corrosion of the rebar. After the collapse, there were multiple locations where the rebar was hanging from parts of the remaining structure. Per recent investigations, this steel appears rusted, which suggests that the rebar did not bond to the concrete properly during the pour at the time of construction or that for some reason this steel was exposed and not protected adequately,” she said.

The lack of maintenance and inspections on the building could have accelerated the deterioration of the structure even more apart from the moisture and salt in the air being so close to the Caribbean Sea,” Valbuena added. According to the engineer, “the Surfside building collapse is definitely not a common event but rather a rare one.”

The required inspections are frequently done on old buildings like this one. The proper maintenance needs to be done on every structure in order to ensure its safety. This will undoubtedly open the eyes to those responsible for the inspections and for the maintenance and will hopefully prevent events like this to happen again.

We cannot forget either about the actual design and construction of the building. If it was a design/construction human error or if it was human negligence, we can learn that this cannot be taken lightly. Buildings, roads, bridges are structures where people live on, drive on, work on and they have to be designed, constructed, inspected and maintained safely and by people that can put their names on them.

Surfside: a fight against time

The collapse of the residential complex in Surfside presents a colossal challenge to Miami-Dade County, the state of Florida and the federal government. Although Florida is a state that is accustomed to emergency management (one of the consequences of being in the Hurricane Alley), the collapse in Surfside presents a challenge of another magnitude.

Unlike a hurricane, which can be anticipated several days in advance, the 100-foot-tall building vanished in a matter of seconds, leaving hundreds of people buried in the rubble. Not only is there the task of trying to rescue the dozens of Surfside residents who were trapped, but there are hundreds of victims who, right now, are without homes and possessions in the blink of an eye.

Rescue corps are doing an amazing effort trying to save lives from the rubble. (EFE)

You do not need to be an expert in humanitarian emergency management to understand that cooperation between every branch of government (local, state, and federal) is vitally important. Every minute counts.

Indeed, despite the partisan differences between each of the authorities (Democratic mayor, Republican governor, and Democratic president), the State’s reaction is equal to the difficult moment. The Miami-Dade mayor’s office declared a state of emergency on the morning of June 24, followed by the state of Florida, which gave agencies in charge of rescue, response, and mitigation operations greater access to the resources they needed.

The federal government quickly followed the lead set by local authorities, with Biden signing an emergency declaration for Surfside on June 25, authorizing FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to coordinate all disaster mitigation efforts to alleviate the terrible consequences of the disaster.

The actions of state agencies were swift and coordinated, with FEMA mobilizing all of the state’s urban search and rescue first responders to Surfside. Miami-Dade sent first responders to the area, with the goal of rescuing possible survivors or recovering the bodies of victims.

Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Governor Ron DeSantis, told El American that “In the aftermath of a tragedy like the Surfside building collapse, there’s no place for partisan politics.”

“This is a team effort, and Governor DeSantis has been cooperating with the local and federal authorities throughout the process. Miami-Dade Police and Fire & Rescue teams led the first response, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava has been working tirelessly on the ground in Surfside to support this world-class search effort and to be there for the Surfside community,” Pushaw explained.

“Governor DeSantis and Mayor Cava have been cooperating well because they share the same priority: helping the families of Surfside during this devastating time. The Governor has expressed his appreciation for Mayor Cava’s work, and vice versa. The same day the building collapsed, Governor DeSantis flew to Surfside, met with Mayor Cava and other local officials, and asked them what the state could do to help them. He made sure that they had everything they needed from him.”

“In a time of political polarization it’s rare to see politicians from different parties coming together for a common goal, but following the tragedy in Surfside, leaders have put their differences aside and are working together to help the community in every way,” Pushaw told El American.

Florida’s government did the same, mobilizing through the Florida Division of Emergency Management the entire state’s capacity to address the emergency. It responded to 147 requests for additional resources for Surfside, established mental health efforts for those affected, created mechanisms to provide immediate housing for residents, and authorized financial assistance for businesses affected by the disaster, among other measures.

In total, there are more than 500 state and county rescue workers in the disaster area and approximately nine departments of the state bureaucracy responded to the tragedy. There was even international assistance in the rescue efforts, with Israel sending a team of experts to assist local authorities in their work.

However, despite the remarkable concerted effort by all branches of government, the rescue efforts have not been as successful as desired. After more than a week of dangerous and complicated rescue operations, 94 people are still missing and no new survivors have been found.

Radiografía de la tragedia de Surfside
Rescuers working in the rubble (EFE).

Rescue efforts were met with numerous obstacles, from the structural fragility of what was left of the building to the imminent arrival of a tropical storm in Florida.

First, rescuers had to deal with several fires in the building’s rubble that filled what was left of the structure with smoke, evidently complicating authorities’ rescue efforts. The weather didn’t help the first days after the disaster either, as the city has been punished with constant rains these past few weeks (something to be expected in Florida’s humid summer).

Weather was not the only threat

Local weather was not the only natural threat hindering rescue efforts. At the same time that the state’s attention has been on the Surfside collapse, Hurricane Elsa was beginning to form in the Caribbean Sea and has reached Florida’s shores.

Although the inhabitants of the sunny state are more than accustomed to this type of affairs, the imminent arrival of Elsa to Florida hindered the rescue efforts.

Added to this, rescue operations had to deal with the constant threat of the part of the building that survived the collapse, which could collapse at any moment, endangering not only the success of any rescue operation, but also the lives of the rescuers.

Searching for survivors in a collapsed building is difficult in itself, but adding the sword of Damocles of a second collapse and the arrival of Elsa, turned Surfside into a truly titanic task full of difficult decisions; one of them was the controlled demolition of the rest of the residential building a few days before the arrival of the tropical storm.

Counterintuitive as it may sound, the demolition of the second half of the Champlain Towers was a crucial step in rescue operations. Officials were concerned about the threat that another collapse could bring even more debris to the site, burying any survivors and endangering the lives of rescuers.

Although this demolition was initially planned to take place in a couple of weeks, the imminent arrival of Elsa hastened the plans and the rest of the residential complex was demolished on Sunday, July 4.

Finally, two weeks into the tragedy, authorities announced on July 5 the end of the search for survivors.

“We made the extremely difficult decision to transition from a search and rescue operation to a body recovery operation,” said Levine Cava at a press conference that was filled with tears and silence.

Edith Shiro, a psychologist specializing in trauma, who has been present at ground zero as a volunteer with the NGO Cadena, told El American that just two weeks after the collapse is when the real stage of mourning will begin for those affected.

“We hope that the families of the victims can close their cycle, find the bodies of their loved ones and begin the healing process that they will need so much,” she said.

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