The meticulous business of sorting through family heirlooms, household trinkets and clothing is complicated by the sheer size of the wreckage. Another challenge: The items are mixed in with heaps of building pieces, from floor tiles to broken walls and jagged metal rods, said Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Danny Murillo, a leader of the operation.
To make sense of the pile, officials have divided it into a grid, grouping belongings by where they landed. Workers from the Miami-Dade police department’s property and evidence department sort possessions into bins. They are then catalogued, sealed in bags, placed in labeled boxes and locked in guarded cargo containers until authorities can determine their owners, Murillo said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Two groups, each consisting of eight to nine members in white hazmat suits, work 12-hour shifts, maintaining a 24/7 schedule to catalogue the various objects extracted from the rubble.
The teams have collected all sorts of items, “everyday property just like you and I have in our own homes,” Murillo said. “Clothing to jewelry, heirlooms, photographs, photo albums, you name it.”
Many were blanketed by dust, grazed and dented by 12 stories of building debris. Papers torn. Linens dampened by rain.
And then, by some miracle: “Sometimes, things are just without a scratch,” Murillo said.
Many residents of Champlain Towers South were Jewish, and authorities have uncovered religious relics, some with their own traditions that the workers must account for during their effort.
Rabbi Yossi Harlig, the Miami-Dade police chaplain, said he advised the staff on the significance of Jewish artifacts and embedded trusted workers from Chesed Shel Emes, a New York-based nonprofit Jewish burial society that assists local law enforcement.
With their help, the workers can help return heirlooms that families are asking after, Harlig said.
“Plates you can replace, a vase you can replace,” Harlig said. “But a holy book or tallit [a prayer shawl] or tefillin [a case containing Torah texts for weekday morning prayers] or something that was in the family that was passed from generation to generation, those are things you want to make sure you can get back.”
The remains of Dovy Ainsworth’s parents, Itty and Tzvi Ainsworth, were recovered from the building on July 5, after he and his family spent more than a week anxiously awaiting news. Eventually, he would like to be reunited with belongings from their home, Unit 1104.
Of his parents’ things, most precious to him are the religious items.
His father’s tallit, the prayer shawl that some families also use as a covering in their children’s weddings. A book of psalms they once used, and which he and his siblings could read from.
For Ainsworth, something like a painting or bookend would not compare to “anything spiritual that is connected to the soul.”
“If it’s a book that my mom used to pray out of, and we find it and pray out of it, that’s such a powerful connection,” he added.
Ainsworth said a few family photographs were given to him by a stranger, bringing a measure of comfort, “like a message from my parents.” Later, though, their return made him question the process for recovering belongings. He hopes authorities are cataloguing and preserving what they find at the site.
Other items, including children’s toys, were brought by rescuers to a makeshift memorial set up a block away.
Benjamin Abo, a physician embedded with the rescue team, told The Post that the array of treasures is a tribute that can help people affected by the tragedy have a chance to pay their respects.
“We’re not here just to try to save lives but we’re also treating the community and the survivors,” Abo said.
The collection has continued to grow. A bicycle. Sports jerseys. The 1969 college degree of Marina Restrepo. The 76-year-old was identified Saturday as one of the people found dead in the rubble, Leo Soto, the memorial’s organizer, learned.
When Soto saw her name among the daily list of victims, he posted on Instagram, hoping to reunite the memento with her family in his own unofficial way, he said. No one has come forward. He said that he will help safeguard any personal item at the memorial claimed by a family member so he can give it back to them.
For now, the growing compilation of belongings serves as a display of the lives lost.
“It gives this energy that is palpable but indescribable to the place,” Soto said. “It gives it another level of spirituality tying it to the actual collapse.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said last week that officials are planning how they will return items, including legal documents, jewelry, wallets, electronics and more. They may launch a website where people will be able to fill out a form describing their lost valuables.
“We’re creating a process for families to submit reports about such items that they’re missing as we work hard in the weeks and months ahead to reunite family members with whatever items are possible,” she said at a news conference last week.
The teams have figured out whom some of the recovered items belonged to, such as religious books inscribed with their owners’ names. But many possessions are not labeled.
Steve Rosenthal, whose Apartment 705 was destroyed during the controlled demolition, said he thinks it’s unlikely household goods survived. He said he probably won’t fill out the online form because cherished sports jackets or expensive Baccarat vases won’t be found in good condition.
“I’m not looking back,” Rosenthal said.
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