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'I'm a mess.' Surfside survivors struggle to reclaim their lives after tower collapsed

Linda Robertson, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

The survivors don’t feel blessed. They feel cursed. One year after being thrown out of bed by the force of what sounded like an explosion, seeing their walls sway like curtains, stepping out their doors to the threshold of a black abyss where neighbors’ units had been shorn off, they describe the terror of feeling they were seconds from plunging to their death.

“You cannot forget or replace the life you lived for 40 years. In an instant, it was gone,” said Esther Gorfinkel, 89, who was an original owner at Champlain South, constructed in 1981. She believed she would be entombed in the rubble that night, until Lopez hoisted her onto his back.

The survivors are stuck in limbo, like refugees, still grieving, displaced, unable to start over.

Almost all are seeing psychiatrists or psychologists. They’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people are taking antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills. They’ve got persistent coughs from the dust they inhaled. They’re in therapy for survivors’ guilt. Flashbacks. Panic attacks. Inability to concentrate at work. Startled reactions to loud noises, cowering during thunderstorms. Fear of heights. They cry. They can’t stop crying.

“I’m a mess. My wife is emotionally broken. My son has tried to be a rock for us but he is not the same,” said Lopez, pulling tissues from a box on his desk.

Not only did they lose their homes when their section was demolished with dynamite for fear that it would fall, too, but they lost everything — everything — in them. Some ran out that night in bare feet. In the early days, they wore donated underwear, ate donated food. Now they’re renting apartments they can’t afford or staying in the spare bedrooms of relatives.

 

Their one-year leases will soon end, but they don’t know where to go. They can’t plan because it’s uncertain exactly how much money they will receive from the $1 billion settlement in the class-action lawsuit against two dozen defendants, including the building’s security company, condo association, consulting engineer on its 40-year recertification renovations and the developer and builders of the luxury condo next door, Eighty Seven Park. The parties settled without admitting any negligence.

Owners of Champlain South’s 136 units will receive $96 million for their property losses, to be divided in proportion to the size of each unit among those who lived and the heirs of those who died. But it’s not nearly enough to cover the full market value of the condos, nor enough to buy anything comparable, especially given skyrocketing real estate prices.

Bitter wrangling in court with some of the relatives of the deceased over what surviving owners argue is an unfair allocation of settlement, insurance and land sale funds has been a relentless source of stress.

“We’ve had to rebuild our lives from zero,” said Steve Rosenthal, who clutched a shopping bag into which he’d tossed a couple shirts and his wallet as he descended from his balcony in a fire truck bucket.

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©2022 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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