'A limbo that's a living nightmare': One family's wait for the missing of a collapsed Florida condo

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When Pablo Rodriguez got the telephone successful the aboriginal hours of June 24 that Champlain Towers South had collapsed, helium had immoderate anticipation that his parent and grandma had survived.

Switching connected the TV and looking astatine images of the heap of rubble, the 40-year-old lawyer could spot that portions of his mother’s condominium gathering were inactive standing. Maybe her flat hadn’t fallen — possibly someway she and his grandma had recovered a mode to escape.

Scrolling frantically connected his cellphone for quality arsenic his wife, Vivian Lasaga, drove him crossed Miami, helium recovered a video of the illness that showed No. 1211, his mother’s penthouse-floor apartment, with its patio lounger and pots of basil and parsley connected the balcony, driblet retired of existence.

Seconds aft it crashed to the ground, different stack of apartments to the eastbound tumbled connected apical of it, collapsing into a flickering, smoking pile.

“It felt similar my bosom had been ripped retired of my chest,” helium said. “At that moment, the anticipation that possibly they made it retired went retired the window.”

Ten days aft the condominium disintegrated into a heap of slab and tangled metal, with rescuers suspending their hunt for imaginable survivors successful bid to hole for demolition enactment opening arsenic aboriginal arsenic Sunday for information reasons connected the remaining tower, lone 24 bodies person been recovered from the rubble. Rodriguez’s mother, Elena Blasser, 64, and his grandmother, Elena Chavez, 88, are among much than 121 people inactive classified arsenic missing.

John Rodriguez, 6, with his great-grandmother Elena Chavez and his grandma  Elena Blasser connected  a couch.

John Rodriguez, 6, with his great-grandmother, Elena Chavez, 88, and his grandma Elena Blasser, 64. Blasser and Chavez are missing aft the illness of the Champlain Towers South condominium successful Surfside, Fla.

(Pablo Rodriguez)

“I’m conscionable sitting present successful a limbo that’s a surviving nightmare,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t end. It’s each conscionable been 1 truly agelong time — 1 time runs into the adjacent 1 and you’re like, ‘Well, wherever did the time go?’”

Rodriguez says helium has hardly slept arsenic hundreds of archetypal responders — specializer municipality search-and-rescuers from Florida, Israel and Mexico — person swept the heap of factual and alloy with cameras, sonar and canines. They person lifted factual with buckets and dense cranes, jackhammered into immense slabs and dug a 20-feet-wide, 40-feet-deep trench successful a contention to find survivors.

A pistillate who lived successful No. 611, precisely six apartments beneath his mother, managed to tally down the stairs and flight from the building. A 15-year-old lad who lived 2 floors down was pulled from the rubble live and with fewer injuries, but his parent died. No survivors person been rescued since the time the operation collapsed. The stench of bodies from the rubble has gotten stronger.

Some families person complained that rescue workers person taken excessively long, but Rodriguez doesn’t blasted anyone moving connected the heap for the agonizingly dilatory gait of the search. He understands they’re moving 12-hour shifts successful sweltering vigor connected slippery terrain packed with jagged alloy rebar.

Over the past week, search-and-rescue teams person lugged much than 3 cardinal pounds of factual from the rubble. But fires raging done the debris, tropical rainstorms and the structural instability of the partially remaining operation person often forced them to pause.

On Thursday, crews halted the hunt for 14 hours aft structural engineers detected six to 12 inches of question successful a ample file hanging from the operation that could autumn and harm the enactment columns successful the basement garage. By Thursday evening, the operation was deemed unchangeable capable for immoderate search-and-rescue teams to spell backmost to enactment successful a tiny country of the pile. But section officials are present readying to demolish the remaining operation instantly arsenic Tropical Storm Elsa barrels toward South Florida.

Surfside Mayor Charles W. Burkett, who has visited the tract respective times each day, said the heap of rubble was getting smaller arsenic men and women haul debris from the site, mostly by manus and with buckets.

Every day, helium said, the families of the missing ask: “Are you digging successful this place? Are you uncovering anything? Are you going accelerated enough? Can we spell faster? Can we support moving — adjacent successful the lightning?”

Burkett keeps telling families that helium believes hunt teams volition propulsion idiosyncratic retired of the rubble alive. But adjacent though his parent and grandmother’s bodies person not been found, Rodriguez has slipped into reasoning of them successful the past tense.

“She was afloat of life, she loved to travel, she loved the beach,” helium said of his mother. “Family was her No. 1 thing.”

If a occurrence happens, Rodriguez said, helium would beryllium the happiest idiosyncratic successful the world.

But he’s not expecting a miracle. His lone anticipation is that they find “something,” truthful his household tin springiness his parent and grandma a due burial.


When Rodriguez arrived successful Surfside conscionable hours aft the collapse, the mellow formation metropolis conscionable a fewer miles northeast of Miami had turned into a dystopia of blocked roads, buzzing helicopters and flashing constabulary cruisers.

Joining the unreserved of radical pouring into the household reunification center, helium struggled to process what was happening.

His grandma had planned to instrumentality his 6-year-old son, John, retired for luncheon that time and bargain him a caller bicycle. The full household was expected to stitchery astatine his location Saturday to bent by the pool.

What would helium archer John?

John had seen pictures of the illness that greeting connected the quality and understood that Ama and Yeyi were successful the building.

“Are they OK?” helium kept asking. “Can we FaceTime them?”

Pablo and his parent spoke connected the telephone each day, and John’s grandma and great-grandmother doted connected him. Every Saturday they came to his house, and they would besides prime him up for trips to the formation apartment, Disney World and Legoland.

The Saturday aft the operation went down was particularly hard. Close friends brought their kids implicit to play with John, and they went retired for a Happy Meal.

But John kept asking: “Where are they? “Why aren’t they coming? Can we FaceTime?”

As the standard of the calamity dilatory began to descend in, Rodriguez caught his lad tearing up.

“What’s wrong?” helium asked.

“Nothing,” John said brightly, wiping his eyes and smiling. “I’m happy!”

On Thursday, Rodriguez and his woman took John to spot a grief counsellor alternatively of joining different families to conscionable President Biden. They were disquieted astir however helium was coping. It was much important, Rodriguez thought, that John speech to idiosyncratic who could assistance him explicit what helium was feeling.

That evening, erstwhile the household sat astatine location to ticker “Captain America: The First Avenger,” John kept staring disconnected into the distance.

“What’s wrong?” Rodriguez asked.

“Ama, Yeyi, Champlain Tower,” John said. “Poof!”

John burst into tears, and Rodriguez had to bolt retired of the country to incorporate his sobs portion his woman comforted their son.

“I don’t cognize if helium afloat grasps it,” helium said. “And I’m not definite I do, either. I’m 40 and I’m having trouble understanding.”

Earlier that week, erstwhile families were invited to the tract to witnesser the rescue effort and effort to link with their loved ones, Rodriguez could not marque it each the mode there. As helium approached the gathering from 2 blocks away, helium collapsed erstwhile helium saw the heap down the remaining building.

“It looks similar a movie acceptable for immoderate benignant of catastrophe film,” helium said. “Three oregon 4 stories gangly of thing but debris.”


Elena Chavez and Elena Blasser were calved successful Cuba, but the household fled to New York during the gyration erstwhile Blasser was a girl. After a fewer years successful New York, they lived successful Puerto Rico until they moved to Miami successful the precocious ’70s.

Chavez, who was a nationalist schoolhouse teacher successful Puerto Rico, loved to question truthful overmuch she inactive worked arsenic a question cause astatine the property of 88. Blasser served arsenic a nationalist schoolhouse teacher astatine respective Miami-Dade mediate and simple schools earlier becoming a counsellor and vice principal.

More than a decennary ago, she moved into the Champlain.

The two-bedroom flat was a treasured spot for the household — a spot wherever they gathered connected the weekends to bask the views of the ocean, walk clip by the pool, and devour Blasser’s home-cooked eggplant Parmesan and kibbeh.

But she and different owners often complained astir the deficiency of maintenance, including cracks astir the excavation deck, h2o successful the parking store and overgarment chipping disconnected the building, Rodriguez said.

On their past telephone call, the time earlier the operation collapsed, she told him she didn’t slumber good due to the fact that she was woken up astatine 3 oregon 4 a.m. arsenic the gathering made large creaking noises.

Rodriguez didn’t instrumentality it excessively earnestly astatine the time, but present it gnaws astatine him — on with each the complaints owners had astir the mode the condo was managed.

“How could this happen?” helium said. “It’s negligence. The biggest question I person is however it was allowed to get that bad? This is simply a gathering that collects monthly attraction fees. How did the metropolis travel successful and accidental the gathering was OK aft seeing the report?”

Although the cause of the collapse has yet to beryllium determined, an technologist flagged successful a 2018 study that the gathering had a “major error” wherever deficiency of drainage connected the excavation platform had caused “major structural damage” to a factual slab beneath that deck. In November 2018, aft receiving a transcript of that report, Surfside’s main gathering inspector reassured residents that the gathering was successful “good shape.”

According to engineering and architectural experts, aggregate factors could person played a relation successful the tragedy, perchance a compromised instauration oregon flaws successful the building’s plan oregon construction.

The building, which had not completed its required 40-year recertification, was having enactment done connected its extortion and astir to acquisition extended repairs for rusted alloy and damaged concrete.

On Thursday, the assemblage of Magaly Delgado, an 80-year-old Cuban pistillate who lived 3 stories beneath his mother, was found. Later that night, a Miami firefighter carried his ain daughter, 7, retired of the rubble.

Rodriguez is bracing himself for a telephone call. Still, helium does not deliberation helium volition beryllium acceptable erstwhile it comes.

Every clip Rodriguez lies down and closes his eyes, the video replays itself successful his head, and helium sees the operation clang down.

He is trying to deliberation of happier times, but adjacent that tin beryllium bittersweet.

Opening up Facebook, notifications popular up of household summertime formation vacations: photograph aft photograph of his mother, grandma and lad beaming successful beforehand of wide Caribbean h2o connected the Turks and Caicos and the Cayman Islands.

“Those were ever our happiest moments,” helium said. “It’s pugnacious knowing I’m not going to marque immoderate caller moments with them.”

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