Three months later in Surfside: Some mourning, some moving on

Dog walkers talking on their cellphones. Families toting large coolers toward the beach. Shirtless runners jogging down the sidewalk. And traffic inching along — several weeks since a sudden tower collapse transformed an oceanside paradise into purgatory.

Collins Avenue is filled with all the sights you might expect to see on a sunny weekend in a residential area of northern Miami Beach. But, each time a new line of cars comes to a red light on 88th Street, there is a tangible pause. The heads inside turn East, almost collectively. They look at the fenced-off, gaping hole in the ground for a moment, then gaze straight ahead. The light turns green and the cars keep moving.

The street view on Collins Avenue between 87th and 88th Street of what remains of Champlain Towers South.
The street view on Collins Avenue between 87th and 88th Street of what remains of Champlain Towers South. Photo credit: Eve Yi Lu

That intersection is directly in front of what used to be Champlain Towers South. Twelve stories of ocean-view condos is now a haunting plot of exposed rebar and crumbled concrete. Three months after the building collapse that killed 98 people and captured the world’s attention, the people of Surfside are trying to move on.

It’s not easy.

Drone view of what remains of Champlain Towers South and its surroundings on Sept. 19, 2021.
Drone view of what remains of Champlain Towers South and its surroundings on Sept. 19, 2021.

“Even though I didn’t lose anyone close, to pass by the building every day takes a toll,” said Pablo De Castro, who bikes past the collapse site to and from work at 7-Six, a vacation supply store on Collins Avenue and 71st Street.

The morning of the June 24 collapse, De Castro, 22, rode his bike past the half-gone condominium.

“I think what was most chilling was when I saw the open apartment, layer after layer,” De Castro said. “People’s whole lives just laying out. A bed that had three of its footings on the floor and then the other one on the edge about to fall off. People’s linens battering in the wind.”

De Castro, a Surfside resident for 12 years, said the collapse “was all we ever talked about” for the two or three weeks after it happened. But the rush of attention from media and emergency personnel has died down.

“You know, I think it goes as most things in this country do, where we kind of really feel it for a few days, but then we move on to the next tragedy,” De Castro said. “Now that there’s not that much happening at the site and we don’t see those vehicles passing by all the time, it’s kind of faded to, maybe, the back of our memories.”

Except, De Castro said, when he passes by the collapse site.

For Abe Sreter, the owner of The Carrot on Harding Avenue, and other business owners in Surfside, the collapse exacerbated the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sreter, 72, said foot traffic at his restaurant has decreased since the collapse. But it was slow before that, too.

“It has settled down. The streets are open, hotels are open. But it has affected business overall,” Sreter said. “All the sudden, after we’re starting to actually get it together, the collapse. And now, the new variant. So overall, it’s very simple to say: 2020 and 2021 have been a challenge. Almost everyone has been affected. There’s no way to escape.”

Sreter has several connections to the collapse. He said his mother had formerly lived in Champlain Towers South and his mother-in-law in Champlain Towers North. Sreter’s lawyer and a former Surfside Vice Mayor, Barry Cohen, was rescued from his condo by firefighters. A fellow member of his synagogue, Brad Cohen, died in the collapse.

“My life personally has not changed. But there’s been…it’s very hard to express,” Sreter said.

Next door at The Rolling Pin Bakery, employee Betsaida Algaba, 30, said Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur usually draw in more customers to the kosher and pareve bakery.

“When the streets were closed, it was very, very empty,” Algaba said. “And usually at this time there are more orders for the holidays than we have today.”

Algaba said when she and other employees at the bakery heard about the collapse, they recognized regular customers — a mother and daughter — in the victim photos on the news.

Marsha Graham, a hairdresser at Lahh Hair Salon on Harding Avenue, said that for a week or so after the collapse, her chairs were virtually empty. Business has picked up since, but now there’s one less customer on her appointment books. That client, Mercedes Urgelles, often came in for a haircut, coloring and blowdry at the salon.

“There’s been a heavy shift in morale in the community because it’s so tight-knit,” Graham said. “Since it happened, people feel closer to each other.”

Marsha Graham in front of Lahh Salon on Harding Avenue in Surfside on Sept. 16, 2021.
Marsha Graham in front of Lahh Salon on Harding Avenue in Surfside on Sept. 16, 2021. Photo credit: Lauren Cruz Del Valle

Nicolas Giordano, 38, is an eighth-grade algebra teacher at Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor K-8 Center, which draws about 40% of its students from Surfside.

On the first day back to school — about one month after the collapse — Giordano said the school held a moment of silence for the collapse victims. And later that week, “sort of a pep rally.” Some players from the Miami Heat came with giveaways for the students. Giordano said it was not explicitly about the collapse, “but everybody kind of knew.”

But after that, Giordano said, he hasn’t heard students talking about the tragedy in the hallways or at lunchtime. And in his math class, the topic doesn’t get brought up during lectures. Giordano said he thinks that’s for the best.

“Once you start school, you kind of want to get into the mind frame of normalizing the day-to-day routine,’ Giordano said. “And it kind of throws things off if we’re still going back to that.”

Giordano lives on the 21st floor of a 22-story apartment building in Aventura, about 20 minutes from the school, with his wife and two young children.

A family huddles close at the Surfside Tennis Center on Saturday, June 26. The center's gate has been used as a memorial wall for those lost in the collapse.
A family huddles close at the Surfside Tennis Center on Saturday, June 26. The center's gate has been used as a memorial wall for those lost in the collapse. Photo credit: Liam McNeer

His initial reaction to hearing about the collapse on the morning news: “Shock, more than anything. And then anger. How is this not something local governments are regulating?”

Luis Benito, a former part-time security guard at 8701 Collins Ave., arrived to work on the day of the condo collapse at 7 a.m. He “thought it was a joke” when he learned the neighboring condominium directly north of his building had collapsed earlier that morning.

Benito said the overnight guard he had relieved was visibly shaken.

“He said that he helped people get out of the building and he never wanted to come back to work at another high-rise building ever again. He left about a week after,” Benito said.

At first, Benito said he was scared to come to work.

“I was thinking, you know, what happens if everything comes down? So to be honest with you, for the first two to three weeks, we would always stand by the front door just so we could run out if we were next.”

Benito no longer works there.

A small sentimental memorial on the beach in front of 8701 Collins Ave Condominium on Sept. 4 2021.
A small sentimental memorial on the beach in front of 8701 Collins Ave Condominium on Sept. 4 2021. Photo credit: Srishti Jaiswal

Nina Le Troadec, a 16-year-old who has lived in the Champlain Towers East building for nine years with her mom and sister, said she was cleaning her bedroom at the time of the collapse.

“I remember seeing my friend’s apartment, half of it gone,” Le Troadec said. “I remembered waving hello to her from my balcony, but now her balcony is gone.”

That friend and her family survived, she said. But another friend’s father who lived in the South tower died.

“For a couple of months it was hard for me to fall asleep,” Le Troadec said. “Every day I think about the collapse and also think if my building will ever collapse.”

The decision about what to do with the Champlain Towers South property is complicated, residents say.

“There seems to be a bit of confusion,” Juan Sosa, a pastor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church just south of Surfside, said.

Sosa knew eight families who died in the collapse.

“Some people want a memorial right on site. Most would like to be compensated for their loss. The city seems to be struggling with a project that would satisfy everyone. There are still emotional reactions to an inexpressible catastrophe,” Sosa said.

Families of the victims and residents passionate on the matter packed the Sept. 14 Surfside commission meeting to voice their opinions.

They spoke about the proposal in which whoever buys the property— an offer for $120 million is currently on the table— could swap the land for the grounds of the community center. In exchange, the community center would be rebuilt on the collapse site with a memorial.

The commissioners, though they didn’t vote on it, rejected that idea.

“I can’t have a building built where he died,” Vicky Btesh said through sobs at the meeting. Her 26-year-old husband died in the collapse.

“If you are going to reject our suggestion or proposal — which I think should be voted by the whole community, not only you guys having the last word — at least try to contact and help us find a way so I don’t have to drive by that place and see a building erasing what is the biggest tragedy of my entire life,” Btesh said.

“Your loved ones need to be memorialized properly and I support you in getting a memorial. But the land swap, unfortunately, is not an option,” Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said during the meeting. “We don’t want to divide the town, and this is why we don’t want to put it to a vote because that’s not going to end well for anyone.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said in the meeting that he believes the decision is above the commission’s paygrade.

“This is a question, I thought, for the residents,” Burkett said. “I think it’s presumptuous for elected officials who are only here for two years to make these kinds of significant decisions.”

Now, Burkett said that debate will largely be answered in Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman’s court.

“I’m hopeful that something can be worked out so the families feel as though they’ve been heard,” Burkett said.

But, he added, they should take their time.

“I’m afraid that the process is moving very quickly toward a sale of the site,” Burkett said. “I don’t see the urgency for the rush because the cost to carry the property has mostly been eliminated.”

Burkett said that the property assessor waived real estate taxes for a year and other costs are “almost nothing.”

“I think it would be appropriate to take more time now before the decision is made to sell the property. Because once it’s sold, it’s over. You can’t unring that bell,” Burkett said.

Contributing reporters: Srishti Jaiswal, Eve Yi Lu, Annalise Iraola, Lauren Cruz-Del Valle and Stephanie Castro.