‘Still a nightmare’: Surfside families mark one year since collapse

Record-breaking settlements for victims and their relatives have failed to provide closure a year after the Surfside, Fla. condo building collapsed. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

SURFSIDE, Fla. — In the year since Champlain Towers South collapsed, families of the 98 people who died have been denied two things they say will help them heal. The first is a reason — why did the 12-story building suddenly implode and crash to the ground in the predawn hours of June 24? That answer is probably still years away.

The second is simpler: They wanted to be at the place where it happened. To stand on the site that for months was a rubble-strewn disaster area and then, once the final remains were recovered and the piles of debris hauled away, a flooded sandpit. 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 got the opportunity to set foot on the vacant lot on the beach. They gathered at the same place, and at the same time a year earlier when — just after 1 a.m. — the building began to buckle and heave and within 10 minutes cave in on itself.

“It’s a way to be in a place we weren’t allowed to be in 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 at that site.”

On the first anniversary of one of the worst building failures in United States history, many families of those killed say they are still in a state of limbo. The remains of their loved ones have been identified, but not an explanation for their deaths. Florida has passed some condo safety reforms, but there are doubts about how effectively they can be implemented. A judge on Thursday gave final approval for a $1.2 billion settlement to families who lost loved ones, but it 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 newlywed husband, Luis Sadovnic, perished in the disaster. “It’s a nightmare. Still a nightmare.”

Families helped to plan this weekend’s events — much of which involves the site of the collapse. Surfside town officials lit 98 torches around the nearly two-acre lot where the building once stood. One large eight-foot torch will stay lit at the site for nearly a month, marking the time it took rescue workers to find the final remains buried in the rubble.

First lady Jill Biden, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other elected officials, spoke at a remembrance event on the site Friday. Family members delivered tearful tributes describing the loved ones they lost.

“On behalf of my husband, President Biden, whose hearts and prayers have never left this community, we stand by you today and always,” Biden said.

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

Relatives have to fill out claims forms that ask them to “describe how the loss of the Decedent has impacted this Survivor’s life.” The document requests they note “any mental anguish, grief or sorrow” suffered as well as the loss of “care, guidance, advice, counsel, training, protection, society, comfort, or companionship.”

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

Survivors of the collapse face a different set of challenges, including finding a permanent place to live in an area where home prices have risen steeply in the past 12 months. The judge awarded them $96 million, with some of the proceeds coming from the $120 million sale of the property to Dubai-based developer Damac.

Oren Cytrynbaum lived at 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 “economic loss only” class of victims.

“You’ll never be able to compare the two. You can’t compare the 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 home and all their possessions. It doesn’t compare, but that doesn’t take away that hurt.”

Looming over it all is the unanswered question of what happened, and why.

“This is a horrible situation for the families. I know they want to know why that building came down. We all want to know,” said Charles Burkett, who was mayor of Surfside at the time of the collapse. “But a lot of people want to basically close the book and have everybody move on, to get on with life. But we need answers.”

After cataloguing the rubble, investigators with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are preparing to conduct more invasive tests on the debris in hopes of shedding light on the state of the building’s concrete and reinforcing steel at the time of the collapse.

“We have ruled out nothing at this time,” a NIST update from this month stated.

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

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

“There are enormous implications for the life safety of buildings across the United States and elsewhere in the world,” the NIST update states.

Despite the slow pace of a complex investigation, Emily Guglielmo, past president of the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, said the failure of Champlain Towers South in time will probably lead to new building codes nationwide.

“It has caused us to question everything,” Guglielmo said. “Do we have the right codes? Do we have the right construction? Is there a climate change issue? Is there a sea-level issue? Across the board, from design through construction through how you maintain a building, there are conversations that are happening directly as a result of Surfside that were not happening prior to that.”

Lawmakers in Florida, 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 question whether the state has enough structural engineers to make those 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 were not binding. At the federal level, South Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) on Thursday announced she would introduce a bill next week to provide low-interest financing for condo associations to pay for structural maintenance.

Debate and disagreements among condo board members of Champlain Towers South about the cost of needed maintenance delayed preparations for repairs for three years. Concrete restoration work was set to begin when half the building collapsed.

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

The rescue teams worked around-the-clock, from June 24 until July 20, when the final remains were found. But only three people were rescued 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 at the hospital later that day. Handler, who is now 16, was severely injured but has recovered enough to start playing baseball again. He and his father, Neil Handler, have organized a gala charity event Saturday night to raise money for first responders, victims of trauma, veterans, their families and communities. The Handlers named the charity The Phoenix Life Project, with a goal of “bringing serenity to calamity.”

Jonah Handler now lives with his father in Champlain Towers North, about two blocks away from the collapse site. Neil Handler said his son wanted to do something permanent to honor his mother and to thank the first responders who saved his life.

“I’m trying to teach Jonah that, no matter how bad something gets, to 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 it’s defining who they are. I told Jonah, ‘You can’t let this thing define you. It’s either going to cripple you or make you stronger.’ ”

He said the charity is a way for his son to move forward, as are the more somber moments, such as the candlelight vigil on the site.

“We’re all bonded by this catastrophe, and we’re all going to heal in different ways,” he said. “It’s important to celebrate those we lost, and also to come together in a spirit of love and forgiveness.”

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