Surfside families mark one year since Champlain Towers South collapse

Record settlements for victims and their loved ones have failed to close a year after the condo building collapsed in Surfside, Florida. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)
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SURFSIDE, Fla. — In the year since the collapse of Champlain Towers South, the families of the 98 people who died have been denied two things they believe will help them heal. The first is a reason – why did the 12-story building suddenly implode and crash to the ground at dawn on June 24? This answer is probably still years away.

The second is simpler: they wanted to be where it happened. Standing on the site which for months was a disaster area strewn with rubble and then, once the last vestiges were recovered and the piles of debris washed away, a flooded sand pit. A plot of land surrounded by a chain-link fence with a locked gate and put up for sale.

Early Friday, the parents, children and siblings of those killed had the opportunity to set foot on the vacant beach lot. They met in the same place, and at the same time a year earlier when – just after 1 a.m. – the building began to warp and heave and 10 minutes crumble in on itself. First Lady Jill Biden will speak at a public memorial event later in the morning.

“It’s a way of being in a place where 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 to reflect on the brutality of how the people we loved died there, how it happened on this site.”

On the first anniversary of one of the worst construction failures in US history, many families of those killed say they are still in a state of uncertainty. The remains of their relatives have been identified, but no explanation for their deaths. Florida has passed some condominium security reforms, but there are doubts about the effectiveness of their implementation. A judge gave final approval on Thursday for a $1.2 billion settlement to families who lost loved ones, but he offers no answers as to what happened and assigns no blame.

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

The families helped plan this weekend’s events, much of which involves the site of the collapse. Surfside City Officials Lit 98 torches around the nearly two-acre lot where the building once stood. A large eight-foot torch will remain lit at the site for nearly a month, marking the time it took rescuers to find the last remains buried in the rubble.

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

Relatives must fill out claim forms asking them to “describe how the loss of the deceased impacted the life of this survivor”. The document asks that they note “any mental anguish, grief or grief” experienced as well as the loss of “care, advice, guidance, training, protection, society, comfort or companionship”.

“A lot of my clients, they haven’t been able to cry, really, focus on the loss, because so much has happened with the lawsuit and the insurance,” said Edith Shiro, a clinical psychologist in Miami who is treating more than a dozen family members. “They are re-traumatized with every meeting, hearing or event. And now they have to fill out a form so someone can assess each person’s life and decide how much they will receive.

Collapse survivors face a different set of challenges, including finding permanent housing in an area where house prices have risen sharply over the past 12 months. The judge awarded them $96 million, part of the proceeds from the $120 million sale of the property to Dubai-based developer Damac.

Oren Cytrynbaum lived in Champlain Towers South and his parents also owned a unit in the building. None of them were there at the time of the collapse, which puts them in the category of victims of “economic losses only”.

“You can never compare the two. You can’t compare loss of life to property or economic loss,” Cytrynbaum said. “But that doesn’t take away from the fact that some people are completely devastated by the loss of their homes and all their possessions. It’s not comparable, but it doesn’t take away that pain.

Above all of this is the unanswered question of what happened and why.

“This is a horrible situation for the families. I know they want to know why this 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 basically want to close the book and have everyone move on, to get on with their lives, but we need answers.

After cataloging the rubble, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) investigators are preparing to perform more invasive tests on the debris in hopes of shedding light on the condition of the concrete and steel of the building. reinforcement of the building at the time of the collapse.

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

Early theories were that the condo’s pool deck had failed because it was poorly maintained. This part of the property appeared to collapse first, followed by half of the building crashing to the ground. The rest of the condo was unstable and demolished as a hurricane approached Surfside.

Working with a budget of $22 million, the NIST investigation is expected to take up to five years.

“There are huge implications for the safety of people in buildings in the United States and around the world,” the NIST update said.

Despite the slowness of a complex investigation, Emily Guglielmo, former president of the National Council of Associations of Structural Engineers, declared the failure of the Champlain South towers in time will likely lead to new nationwide building codes.

“It made us question everything,” Guglielmo said. “Do we have the correct codes? Do we have the right build? Is there a climate change problem? Is there a sea level problem? In everything from design to construction to how you maintain a building, there are conversations happening right after Surfside that weren’t happening before it.

Florida lawmakers, after being criticized for taking no action in the state’s regular legislative session, met in a special session last month and passed 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 collect and save money in reserve for maintenance. . Some wonder if the state has enough structural engineers to make these new standards a reality.

A Miami-Dade County grand jury recommended dozens of changes to building inspection requirements, including reducing the 40-year time frame for recertification — though their suggestions weren’t binding. At the federal level, South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) announced Thursday that she would introduce legislation next week to provide low-interest financing to condominium associations to pay structural maintenance.

Debates and disagreements among Champlain Towers South board members over the cost of necessary maintenance delayed preparations for repairs by three years. Concrete restoration work was due to begin when half of the building collapsed.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said families receive updates every two weeks in an effort to be transparent and “do everything we can to show that we are with them, that we are working with them to find answers.”

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 Fang. First responders pulled them from the rubble after a man walking his dog nearby heard Handler’s calls for help.

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

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 permanent to honor his mother and thank the first responders who saved his life.

“I try to teach Jonah that no matter how bad something goes, try to turn it into something positive,” Neil Handler said. “One of the things I’ve realized is that some people are stuck in this morbid reflection of what happened, and that 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 charity is a way for his son to move forward, as are the darker times, like the candlelight vigil at the site.

“We are all bound together by this disaster and we will all heal in different ways,” he said. “It’s important to celebrate those we’ve lost, and also to come together in a spirit of love and forgiveness.”

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