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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

MIAMI — Raysa Rodriguez hears voices.

They wake her up at night. They speak to her when she’s riding her bike. They plead with her when she’s cooking dinner. It’s as if the ghosts of her friends and neighbors are trapped in her head, one year after they were trapped in the rubble of Champlain Towers South.

They are moaning. They are screaming. The most distinct voice is of a woman crying, “Please help me. Please don’t leave me here like this.”

“I hear them dying,” Rodriguez said, matching names to unit numbers and describing personalities. “Dying in the wreckage of our homes. And I couldn’t save them. It haunts me.”

Survivors of the Surfside condominium collapse say they are suffering even more today than they did on June 24, 2021, when two-thirds of the 12-story oceanfront building fell, one floor pancaking on top of another at 1:22 a.m. that Thursday, killing 98 people.

Some residents and visitors who were in the section that remained standing escaped by running down the stairs and climbing over smashed cars in the caved-in, flooded parking garage. Others were rescued from balconies by firefighters.

They don’t know why they were spared. In their darkest moments, some confess they wish they hadn’t been.

They try hard to believe they are alive for a reason. They wrack their brains for a reason. But where is the reason in an incomprehensible tragedy?

‘I’m a mess’

“ ’Be thankful it wasn’t your time to die’ — we’ve heard that over and over from well-meaning people,” said Alfredo Lopez. He, carrying an elderly neighbor, led his wife and son down six flights of stairs to the beach.

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.

He was lucky he had a sports coat at the dry cleaners. He’s renting downtown but jokes he’ll have to move to the Everglades or “West Hialeah.” “Think of all your belongings, including your car, your TV, your favorite coffee mug — not to mention your family mementos. We’ve had to restock every single thing, down to salt and pepper shakers. Rainy season starts and I realize I need to buy a rain jacket.”

Her spirit vanquished

By far, the greatest loss has been sense of self.

Iliana Monteagudo used to think her best asset was her friendly, outgoing nature. But her joie de vivre was crushed in the Surfside disaster.

“With me, among my friends, my joy was a sure thing. At parties, I made people laugh,” she said. “Now I don’t talk to anybody. I don’t socialize. I don’t go out. I don’t use Facebook. Because I am a sad person. And I don’t want to make my friends sad or feel sorry for me.

“I am looking desperately for my happiness and I can’t find it. My personality is missing. I don’t know how to get it back.”

Monteagudo does not even feel up to attending the annual Miami reunion for natives of Ciego de Avila, her hometown in Cuba.

“I will cry,” she said, wiping away tears. “I cry too much.”

Split-second decision saved her life

Monteagudo’s survival story is perhaps the most miraculous one. She is the only person who escaped under her own power from one of the obliterated upper-floor units. She scrambled down six flights of stairs as the building fell behind her.

Monteagudo, 65, got out of unit 611 during the seven-minute gap between the time the pool deck caved in at 1:15 a.m. and two sections of the building collapsed within seconds of each other at 1:22 a.m.

Awakened, she says, by the spirit of her beloved saint, la Virgen de Guadalupe, she saw a crack move down her living room wall “like a snake.” After fumbling with her bra — “I told myself, you don’t have time, forget the bra!” — throwing on a sundress, sliding into sandals, grabbing her handbag and blowing out her Guadalupe candle, she obeyed her mind’s commands to run fast not to the staircase closest to her door, which crumbled to bits moments later, but to the one at the opposite end of the hall.

First she paused to pound on the door of neighbor Hilda Noriega, 92, who was partially deaf. No response, so Monteagudo prayed Noriega was at her son’s house. Noriega was not; she was the oldest person to die in the collapse.

Praying intensely as the stairs shook violently at the fourth floor, Monteagudo made it to the lobby, then picked her way through the debris of the parking garage with the aid of security guard Shamoka Furman, who told her, “Hold on to me, Mama.”

One year later, Monteagudo is renting an apartment in Miami Beach. It is furnished like a bland hotel room, nothing like her elegant place at Champlain South, which she had purchased six months before the collapse for $600,000 cash — her life’s savings and money from a divorce settlement. She had fulfilled her dream of retiring on the beach, she said, showing a photo of a full moon illuminating a path across the water. She had installed a custom closet to hold her collection of fancy dresses and luxuriant coats and stunning jewelry from those flush years when her Argentinian ex-husband’s business was thriving.

“I lost my past, all my pictures of my parents, my sons, my grandsons,” she said. “I lost my future, my hope of living in a nice place.”

She shook her head at the irony: She fled Cuba with one suitcase. She fled Champlain South with one purse.

“Contrary to what you might expect, one year doesn’t mean progress for me,” she said. “I’ve gone backwards.”

Monteagudo injured her knees during her escape. She’s in pain and jokes with a frown that she can’t wear high heels like she used to. She takes heart medication, has palpitations, once raced to the emergency room because she forgot to take her blood thinner and had a small clot in her brain. Another time she went in to check the blood content in her urine; she pulls up a picture of her urine sample, which looks like beet juice. She’s banned from drinking coffee.

Monteagudo spread out an array of plastic pill bottles and dispensers on her dining room table, lamenting how she used to take only vitamins.

“Now I have a cardiologist, an electrophysiologist, a neurologist, an orthopedist and a psychiatrist,” she said. “I have doctors’ appointments constantly.”

She’s been prescribed mirtazapine for depression, trifluoperazine and lorazepam for anxiety, methocarbamol for pain, metoprolol for angina and hypertension, Entresto to improve heart function, Xarelto to prevent blood clots.

The anger she feels over the class-action case dispute makes her sick, she says. Like other surviving owners, she believes they were bullied by lawyers for some of the family members into taking a low-ball settlement. The judge and lawyers on the case warned them that an untested Florida statute could be used to sue them for negligent maintenance up to the value of their units since their building had inadequate insurance to cover such a catastrophic loss of life. The owners who survived felt they were being blamed and penalized.

They also believe they are entitled to an allocation closer to the $150 million figure originally discussed, which is comprised of the value of the property recently sold for $120 million and property insurance on the building — which they as owners paid for. Lawyers cut that figure down during mediation in February because they said they were pessimistic about reaching a $1 billion settlement. Once they did last month, however, surviving owners felt it was only fair that their share should be increased.

“We are victims, too, but we are living victims. Does that make us criminals?” she said. “I don’t see justice for the survivors. A lot of innocent people died but that is not our fault. We didn’t destroy the building. Why would we be sleeping there, just like your relatives were? If the survivors are guilty, so is every deceased owner, including those who lived there a long time.

“This hurts me deeply. What is our fault? To be alive?”

Monteagudo helps manage a small adult living facility near Florida International University where she can temporarily forget her troubles by spending time with the elderly residents she adores. She leans on her three sons and three grandsons and looks forward to becoming grandmother to her first granddaughter. She finds solace in her faith.

“Maybe God has a better plan for me down the road,” she said. “I never ask Him, ‘Why me?’ I try not to feel self-pity. God sends the hardest challenges to those He loves, to those he trusts can make it through. If this was a test, I did not fail. Something good has to come. It has to.”

Everyone knew her name

Raysa Rodriguez was nicknamed “the mayor” at Champlain South. She lived there 18 years. She knew practically everybody, the news about kids and grandkids, the gossip. She looked out for the older folks and doted on the younger ones. The door to 907 was often open, and people would drop in to chat or confide.

“I’m a good listener,” said Rodriguez, 60, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service after she recovered from ovarian cancer.

She loved her friends and neighbors. She loved her seaside life. She rode her bike daily along the beach.

One year after the collapse, she is living with her parents in far west Miami-Dade, in the house where she grew up, in her childhood bedroom. It’s like she’s been thrust back in time. She can’t stop the reel of Surfside memories that replays in her head.

 

“I close my eyes and I’m at Champlain South, and I see the Patel family on a bike ride with their 1-year-old daughter in the baby seat,” she said. “I see Marcus and Ana Guara and their two girls in the pool. I see Manny LaFont from 801 with his kids Mia and Santi; he was such an enthusiastic dad. I see little Lorenzo Leone with those beautiful eyes. I see Graciela Catarossi with Stella, playing in the sand.

“Edgar Gonzalez hosted barbecues every single holiday. He’d go out early to secure a grill and set up an umbrella. He was the sweetest man. His wife Angie and daughter Deven were rescued but he didn’t make it.

“I see Ray and Mercy Urgelles from 211, Elena Blasser from 1211. I see Arnie Notkin in the lobby with his caretaker. He’d say, ‘Hello, Mayor,’ and I’d say, ‘Hello, Coach.’ He used to be a P.E. teacher. His wife Miriam was scared of the cranes at Eighty Seven Park, that they were so close they’d crash into our pool. Hilda said they’d crash into our building.

“Theresa Velasquez, who was caught in the rubble and the rescue teams could not get her out — I knew her and her parents. I saw her dad Julio in the elevator with Linda March the day before. He was having a procedure on his back and she was having one on her neck, so I said when you’re better let’s go for a ride.

“Bonnie Epstein came over to tell me about her aunt’s death. She said her family was shrinking. Then I saw her and her husband David in their bright blue Tesla with their dog Chance and I waved but didn’t stop to talk, and I think about their son David, who lost his parents.

“I passed Cassie from 410 on a bike ride. A big smile on her face.

“I texted Sergio Lozano saying ‘I love seeing your father sitting in the sun.’ That was the last time I saw Tony, and the last time I talked to his wife Gladys, she gave me some chamomile for my mom’s upset stomach.

“Dick Augustine and Elaine Sabino were like family to me. I called them the Odd Couple. Sometimes Dick appears to me and I blurt out, ‘I’m sorry, Dick. I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.’

“I have good memories. Such a variety of people, nationalities, ages, religions, political views. I can see everyone on the pool deck, in their favorite spots.”

‘Holy hell’

Certain triggers transport Rodriguez back to that night. Footage of bombed-out buildings in Ukraine. Passing by high-rises. Elevators freak her out. So does the sound of her mother washing dishes. She keeps a recording of the collapse captured on a friend’s security device on her phone and replays it. It sounds like a rumbling avalanche pierced by the cracks of steel rebar breaking apart.

“The holy hell we went through, people don’t understand,” Rodriguez said.

She was jolted to her bedroom floor by what she first thought was an airplane slamming into the tower. She yanked open her sliding glass doors and was blown backward by a plume of white dust. She ran to the hall and knocked furiously on neighbors’ doors until she turned a corner.

“Oh, my God! What the hell! The whole entire building is gone,” she yelled. “Anybody over there? Hello? Who’s there?”

She helped a friend, her son, their Maltese puppy and an 80-year-old neighbor with a walker clamber to the first floor, which was blocked, then go back to the second. They found unit 209 open, stumbled to the balcony, waved an emergency beacon and waited, wondering when the rest of the building would fall on top of them.

At 3 a.m., firefighters shepherded them down a ladder. A neighbor told Rodriguez he was disturbed by the look in her eyes. He hadn’t seen that kind of look since he was in Vietnam.

Surviving cancer was different.

“There was the initial shock of ‘Me?’ I’m healthy. I exercise, don’t drink or do drugs,” Rodriguez said of the diagnosis in 2016. “Then you understand there’s a method, a treatment program. It’s an ordeal but it’s somewhat predictable. When a chunk of my hair came out at work, I told my mom to take me to the salon and I got my head shaved. After the first chemo you know you’ll be depleted.

“Cancer is a nerve-wracking process. The collapse was a freak occurrence. You had no control. You were totally helpless.”

Rodriguez’s therapist, who also treats a survivor of the Parkland high school shooting, assures her she will get better “but that I’ll live with this trauma for the rest of my life.”

“I’ve lost my usual motivation. I cry every day. When I went through cancer they called me the happy patient. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as happy as I used to be.”

Rodriguez battles “anger issues.” There’s the settlement, which will leave her with about $500,000 to buy a new home. There’s the warning signs that, had they been heeded, might have prevented the collapse. She blames Surfside and Miami Beach for not listening to owners’ concerns about the proximity of construction of the building next door, which could have contributed to the destabilization of Champlain South. She turned over photos to the condo association of excavation by the southern wall, near the point where engineering computer models have shown the pool deck disconnecting from the wall during the collapse of the deck. But nothing came of it.

“I used to wake up in the morning with gratitude that the beach was my backyard,” she said. “Now I question why I survived and those little children did not. I guess there’s more for me to do here. My brother says, ‘Sis, you’ve got seven lives left.’ ”

Carrying her on his back to get out

Alberto Lopez can’t sleep. Rather than toss and turn through a recurring nightmare, he goes outside at 4 a.m. and rides his bike. For 20 miles. In the dark. Alone.

He pedals across the Venetian Causeway, then north almost but not quite to where Champlain Towers South once stood at 87th and Collins, down through South Beach and back to the Edgewater apartment he’s renting with his wife, Marian, and son Michael.

“I’m exercising the demons out of my body,” Lopez said. “It’s therapeutic.”

Lopez and his family came within three feet of perishing in the condo collapse. Thirty-six inches. One year later, what happened seems more surreal than ever.

“The enormity of the odds — you can’t wrap your head around it,” he said.

They heard two explosions.

“Michael ran into our room after the first one, which was the deck sinking into the garage,” said Lopez, who lived in unit 605. “I told them to get shoes on. Then the second one shook the apartment like an earthquake hit.

“When I opened the door, I saw a black hole before me. I saw no apartments to the left. First thing I thought was Estelle Hedaya in 604, she’s gone. I used to see her on walks along the beach. Judy Spiegel in 603 is gone. She was a devoted grandmother. Hilda Noriega in 602 is gone. She was a saint. She did exercises in the pool.

“I assumed we were doomed. We ran down the stairwell by the elevators in our pajamas.”

They came across Esther Gorfinkel in slippers and bathrobe, sitting on a step, sobbing. As others ran past her, Lopez picked her up and bent her over his shoulder.

“She has a bad knee, couldn’t move and wanted to give up,” Lopez said. “I told her that wasn’t an option. Imagine if that was your mother. I said we’ve got to go, we’ve got to go now.

“We made it to the lobby, but the door was blocked shut. We went down to the garage and waded through ankle-deep water with wiring and debris everywhere. We saw one car pancaked on another with a slab of concrete on top. We climbed up that pile and crawled out near the pool. I had Esther on my back. I placed her on a chaise lounge and ran to get paramedics. I could hear people wailing in the rubble. I feel awful I couldn’t help them.

“Why did I get out and a sweetheart like Edgar Gonzalez gets killed? He was starting a new career as a lawyer and was wearing a suit that didn’t fit him anymore and he said, ‘Look at me in this monkey suit,’ and I said, ‘Edgar, you look beautiful.’ ”

Lopez and Gorfinkel keep in touch. She is living with her son. She celebrated her 89th birthday on June 9.

“I’m not well,” said Gorfinkel. She misses her two pet birds who died in the demolition. “It was not easy on me then, and I’m worse now.”

Lopez, 62, isn’t sure how to assess his own recovery.

“You make strides, hit a bump and fall down,” he said.

He is worried about Marian’s mental health. She is registrar at Ruth K. Broad Elementary School and knew several of the children who died. She also knew them from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, a few blocks from Champlain Towers, where she is a Eucharistic minister. Michael, who graduated with a biochemistry degree, put his career on hold to help his parents. He got a job as a Pre-K assistant at the school.

Lopez is working on acceptance. It’s hard work. He has to eradicate the resentment that grew and grew for months at the way surviving owners were treated in court — scapegoats for distraught family members who needed someone to blame, he says.

“We are fed up with the nastiness,” he said. “We had nothing more to do with that collapse than their loved ones. No single party is at fault. It was a combination of factors and we may never have a complete answer. None of the firms who settled admitted any culpability. So there is no accountability and no criminal case. That’s reality. What are you going to do? Sulk?”

Lopez was devastated when owners were pressured to settle for half the value of their condos, or less. So when the $1 billion settlement with insurers rolled in, owners hoped their share would be bumped up, at least to the $120 million sale price of the land. Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman gave them a smaller bump, from $83 million to $96 million. And the lawyers are likely to walk away with $100 million in pay.

“To think we’d be worth more dead than alive — sad but true,” Lopez said. “To think we won’t be made whole, it’s tough, but 96 is better than 83. Accept and move on.”

As part of his new outlook, Lopez took his wife to the Champlain South beach for the first time two weeks ago. She studied the 98 names posted on the fence around the site while he spread a blanket on the sand.

“We sat on the beach, drank a bottle of wine, took a selfie and photos of the hole where our building used to be,” Lopez said. “We cheered. We decided this is our lovely beach and we’re coming back. I want to flip it around and remember the good times and make new ones. Some people can’t go back to that beach yet. I tell them don’t force it, and when you’re ready I’ll meet you there with a bottle of wine.”

During his insomniac bike rides, Lopez used to blow off rage. Now he tries to reflect.

“I see homeless people. I think about how your life goes sideways late one night and you lose your home and you end up on the street. Could happen to any of us,” he said. “There but for the grace of God go I.

“I’m not thankful and never will be. Please don’t tell me to be thankful. But I’m getting closer to acceptance.”

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

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