Surfside families mark a year since Champlain Towers South collapsed

Record-breaking settlements for victims and their relatives have come a year after the collapse of the apartment building in Surfside, Fla. not yet closed. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)
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SURFSIDE, Florida — In the year since the Champlain Towers South collapse, the families of the 98 people who died have been denied two things they say will help them heal. The first is for a reason – why did the 12-story building suddenly implode and crash to the ground in the early morning hours of June 24? That answer is probably years away.

The second is simpler: they wanted to be where it happened. To stand on the site that had been a disaster area for months with rubble and then, when the last remains had been salvaged and the piles of rubble had been dragged away, a flooded sandbox. A plot of land surrounded by a wire mesh fence with a closed gate and offered for sale.

On Friday morning, the parents, children and siblings of the fallen were given the opportunity to set foot on the vacant lot on the beach. They gathered in the same place, and at the same time a year earlier, when – just after 1 a.m. – the building began to collapse and sway, collapsing within 10 minutes. First lady Jill Biden will speak at a public memorial later this morning.

“It’s a way of being in a place we weren’t allowed to be for a year,” said Chana Ainsworth Wasserman, who lost her parents, Tzvi and Ingrid Ainsworth, in the collapse. “The idea behind it is to give a moment of silence and respect and think about the cruelty of how the people we loved died there, how it happened in that place.”

On the first anniversary of one of the worst construction failures in United States history, many families of the dead say they are still in uncertainty. The remains of their loved ones have been identified, but no explanation for their deaths. Florida has made some condo safety reforms, but there are doubts about how effectively they can be implemented. A judge on Thursday gave final approval to a $1.2 billion settlement to families who have lost loved ones, but will not answer what happened or assign blame.

“It’s been a year and all I hear is, ‘It’s under investigation,'” said Pablo Langesfeld, whose daughter Nicole and her newlywed husband, Luis Sadovnic, died in the disaster. “It’s a nightmare. Still a nightmare.”

Families helped plan this weekend’s events, much of which relates to the site of the collapse. Surfside city officials lit 98 torches around the nearly two-acre site where the building once stood. One large six-foot torch will remain lit at the site for nearly a month, signaling the time it took rescuers to find the last remains buried under the rubble.

Meanwhile, lawsuits filed against more than 25 entities, including the Champlain Towers South condo association, as well as engineers and developers of an adjacent building, have been settled. Settlement payouts to the families are expected to begin in the fall, but another painful process comes first.

Survivors must complete claim forms asking them to “describe how the loss of the deceased affected this survivor’s life”. The document requests that note be taken of “any mental distress, grief or sorrow” as well as the loss of “care, guidance, advice, counsel, training, protection, society, comfort or companionship”.

“Many of my clients haven’t really been able to grieve to focus on the loss because so much more has happened to the lawsuit and insurance,” said Edith Shiro, a clinical psychologist in Miami who has treated more than a dozen family members. “With every meeting, hearing or event, they become re-traumatized. And now they have to fill out a form so someone can put a value on everyone’s life and decide how much they’re going to get.”

Survivors of the collapse face a different set of challenges, including finding a permanent place to live in an area where house prices have risen sharply in the past 12 months. The judge awarded them $96 million, part of the proceeds of which came from the sale of the property for $120 million to Dubai-based developer Damac.

Oren Cytrynbaum lived in Champlain Towers South and his parents also had an apartment in the building. None of them were there at the time of the collapse, putting them in the “economic loss only” class of victims.

“You’ll never be able to compare the two. You can’t compare loss of life to property or economic loss,” Cytrynbaum said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that some people are completely devastated by the loss of their home and all their belongings. It cannot be compared, but that does not take away that pain.”

Everywhere looms the unanswered question of what happened and why.

“This is a terrible situation for the families. I know they want to know why that building collapsed. We all want to know,” said Charles Burkett, who was mayor of Surfside at the time of the collapse. “But a lot of people actually want to close the book and let everyone move on, to move on with life. But we need answers.”

After cataloging the rubble, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are preparing to conduct more invasive tests on the rubble in hopes of shedding light on the condition of the building’s concrete and reinforcing steel. at the time of the collapse.

“We haven’t ruled out anything at this time,” reports a NIST update from this month.

Early theories were that the condominium’s pool deck failed because it was poorly maintained. That part of the building seemed to collapse first, followed by half of the building that collapsed with pancakes to the ground. The rest of the condominium was unstable and destroyed as a Hurricane approached Surfside.

With a budget of $22 million, the NIST study is expected to last up to five years.

“There are huge implications for the life safety of buildings in the United States and elsewhere in the world,” states the NIST update.

Despite the slow pace of a complex investigation, Emily Guglielmo, former president of the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, said Champlain Towers South had failed in time. will likely lead to new building regulations across the country.

“It has led us to question everything,” Guglielmo said. “Do we have the right codes? Do we have the right construction? Is there a climate problem? Is there a sea level problem? Across the board, from design to construction to how to maintain a building, there are conversations that happen directly as a result of Surfside that didn’t happen before.

Florida lawmakers, after being criticized for taking no action during the state’s regular legislative session, met in special session last month and approved condominium safety reforms. They include more frequent building inspections — Champlain Towers South was undergoing its 40-year inspection when it collapsed — and a requirement for condo boards to raise money and save for maintenance. Some wonder if the state has enough structural engineers to make those new standards a reality.

A Miami-Dade County grand jury recommended dozens of changes to building inspection requirements, including shortening the 40-year recertification time frame — though their suggestions were non-binding. At the federal level, South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) announced Thursday that she would introduce a bill next week to fund low-interest condo associations to pay for structural maintenance.

Debate and disagreements among Champlain Towers South condo board members over the cost of needed maintenance delayed preparations for repairs for three years. The concrete restoration began when half of the building collapsed.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said families receive weekly updates in an effort to be transparent and “are doing everything we can to show that we’re with them, that we’re working with them to find answers.” to come.”

Rescue teams worked around the clock, from June 24 to July 20, when the last remains were found. But only three people were saved alive, including Jonah Handler and his mother, Stacie canine. Rescuers pulled them from the rubble after a man walking his dog nearby heard Handler’s cry for help.

Fang died in hospital later that day. Handler, who is now 16, was seriously injured but has recovered enough to play baseball. He and his father, Neil Handler, have hosted a gala charity event Saturday night to raise money for first responders, trauma victims, veterans, their families and communities. The Handlers called the charity The Phoenix Life Project, with the aim of “bringing peace to disaster.”

Jonah Handler now lives with his father in Champlain Towers North, about two blocks from the site of the collapse. Neil Handler said his son wanted to do something lasting to honor his mother and thank the first responders who saved his life.

“I try to teach Jonah that, no matter how bad something gets, I try to turn it into something positive,” Neil Handler said. “One of the things I realized is that some people are trapped in this morbid reflection of what happened, and it defines who they are. I said to Jonah, “You can’t let this thing define you. It will either cripple you or make you stronger.” †

He said the charity is a way for his son to move forward, as are the more somber moments, such as the candlelight vigil at the site.

“We are all connected through this catastrophe and we will all heal in different ways,” he said. “It is important to celebrate those we have lost, and also to come together in a spirit of love and forgiveness.”

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