For so many, survival or likely death came down to a single number: their condo unit. The Washington Post used property records, dispatch calls and interviews with survivors and relatives of the missing to learn who lived in the building and where they were at the time of the collapse.
Some survived because they were not in the building that night. Others escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs. But roughly 160 people — those so far confirmed dead and those still missing — disappeared under the crushing dune of rubble.
“I was afraid I was going to be crushed,” said Maria Iliana Monteagudo, 64, who ran down six flights of broken stairs that evening as the building collapsed. “I kept going, screaming: ‘God, help me, please help me. I want to see my sons, I want to see my grandsons, I want to live.’”
Split in half: The 04 units
The few hundred permanent residents of 8777 Collins Avenue in Surfside, Fla., had selected their homes for all sorts of reasons: what was available, what they could afford, the square footage and the view.
In the end, their fate was determined by luck and an invisible fault line that became apparent around 1:30 a.m. that Thursday, when the central and east sections of the building fell away from the towers’ south side. That line ran through the 04 apartments, splitting them in half.
In those units, the master bedrooms — and the people sleeping in them — were pulled down into the rubble. But the living rooms were on the other side of the fault line; they remained standing, and people in them had a chance to survive.
The family in Unit 904 experienced this divide. When the condos began to crumple, Angela Gonzalez and her 16-year-old daughter, Devon, went into a free fall and landed on the fifth floor. Though the impact broke Angela’s pelvis, she pulled her daughter from the rubble and escaped. Mother and daughter were later taken to the area’s largest trauma center.
But Edgar Gonzalez, husband and father, vanished into the wreckage.
Hours after the collapse, his sister, Adriana Chi, was at the family reunification center, distraught. Her niece and sister-in-law had come out of surgery, she told The Post. But nobody had heard from her brother.
The Gonzalez family lived three floors up from Estelle Hedaya, 54, in Unit 604. Hedaya had a Friday ritual: She logged on to her computer, poured herself a drink with tequila and lime, and got ready for the Hedaya Happy Hour. Hedaya, the operations director for Continental Buying Group and Preferred Jewelers International, started the virtual gathering during the pandemic, scheduling it just before Shabbat, which she faithfully observed.
LEFT: Estelle Hedaya, a resident of Unit 604, with her friend Debra Golan's cat. (Debra Golan) RIGHT: The balcony of Estelle Hedaya's 604 apartment, with her Friday tradition — a glass of tequila with lime. (Debra Golan)
Sometimes when she gazed out at the rolling waves of the Atlantic, she was accompanied by a fluffy cat with blue eyes named Izzy who visited Hedaya, a cat lover, when her friend Debra Golan went on vacation.
Three hours before the collapse, Hedaya wrapped up a phone call with Golan that lasted more than an hour.
“We were just catching up on life. It was one of those conversations — amazing until you’re too tired to continue,” Golan remembered. She hung up with Hedaya at 10:25 p.m. Wednesday. It was the last anyone heard from her.
Directly above Hedaya in Unit 704 were two transplants from Venezuela, Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife, Cristina Beatriz de Oliwkowicz, 74. Their bodies were recovered Sunday.
Erick De Moura, a native of Brazil, lived in Unit 1004. On a normal work night, he would have been there asleep.
And that Wednesday had been pretty normal: He worked from home running his sales business while cooking a simmering pot of feijoada. Around 6:15 p.m., he went to his girlfriend’s house, home-cooked meal in tow, to watch a game and play soccer. He was planning to go home — his clothes were wet from jumping in a canal to retrieve a soccer ball — but his girlfriend insisted that he stay.
She probably saved his life, he told The Post.
Since the collapse, he said he’s been visiting the building site twice a day.
“I feel like I’m in a dream,” De Moura said. “I feel like I’m in a movie. I’m in a bad movie.”
The first to fall: 02s, 03s, 10s and 11s
The middle section of the tower fell first. Experts said it appeared to crumble from the ground up. The few people in those units who survived the collapse lived on the upper floors.
The Argentine family of three in apartment 803 had come to Florida to get their coronavirus vaccine. According to the Argentine news outlet Clarin, Fabián Núñez, 55, Andrés Galfrascoli, 45, and their 6-year-old daughter, Sofía, had been staying with their friend Nicolas Pakota for three months when he offered them a single night at his Surfside condo so they could enjoy the private beach.
The couple are well-known and well-connected: Núñez is a plastic surgeon with celebrity clients, and Galfrascoli is a theater producer who is close friends with the first lady of Argentina, according to the Miami Herald.
They’d had Sofia through surrogacy and had been hoping to have another child, Pakota said. All three are now missing, and Pakota said he wishes he had never invited them to his condo: “They weren’t just friends, they were family.”
Another couple, Nicole Doran, a physician assistant, and Ruslan Manashirov, a doctor of internal medicine and neurology, lived just below in Unit 703. After rescheduling their wedding date three times because of the pandemic, the two finally got married May 2.
“They were very, very much in love,” said Wendy Kays, a nurse practitioner who met Doran 11 years ago in the emergency room where they both worked.
The couple moved into Champlain Towers South shortly after their marriage, choosing it for its proximity to Manashirov’s clinic.
“Ironically, the apartment was absolutely gorgeous,” said another friend, Erick Dickson.
As the days tick by and the two remain missing, Kays has been looking for silver linings.
“I feel a little comfort to know that they went together,” she said.
One door down in Unit 702, Ana Ortiz, her husband, Frankie Kleiman, and her son Luis Bermudez, who had muscular dystrophy, were making plans to attend a funeral Thursday for a family friend who died of covid-19, according to the Associated Press.
On Sunday, Ortiz, Bermudez and Kleiman were found dead in the rubble.
“Now rest in peace and without any obstacles in heaven,” Bermudez’s father, also named Luis, wrote to the Associated Press about his son. “I will see you soon my Luiyo.”
Kleiman’s mother, Nancy Kress Levin, was on the same floor, in Unit 712, along with his brother Jay Kleiman and another relative, Deborah Berezdivin. None of them have been found.
Dozens of other residents remain missing, probably buried beneath the rubble. Judy Spiegel was in Unit 603, and Marina Azen in Unit 401. The Patel family was in 311, and the Guerras in 910. Simon Segal in 1203, Edgar Gonzalez in 904, Raymond and Mercedes Urgelles in 211 — the list goes on.
A few have been found. Nicholas Balboa told The Post he was walking his dog when he heard a boy’s voice minutes after the collapse.
“Help! I’m here,” the boy cried out. “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”
Balboa climbed over the debris in flip-flops and spotted a hand emerging from the rubble. He stayed with the boy until rescuers arrived and extracted Jonah Handler, 15, a resident of Unit 1002 and a junior varsity baseball player at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens.
Jonah said his mother, Stacie Fang, was in there, too, but Balboa said he couldn’t see or hear her.
Fang, 54, was the first person declared dead in the disaster. She died of blunt force injuries, according to the county medical examiner. A close family member said Jonah did not suffer severe physical injuries.
Far below Fang, Sara Nir lived on the ground floor, Unit 111, with her two children. That Wednesday evening, she had heard what she thought was late-night construction work, she told The Post. She went to the lobby to tell the guard to call the police and saw the building’s parking deck collapse “like an abyss that has opened up beneath it,” she told COLLive, an independent Orthodox Jewish news service.
She raced back to her apartment to get her kids. They sprinted for their lives toward the exit and then away from the building, running blindly through a cloud of dust.
“I heard a huge noise behind me, but I didn’t want to turn around,” she told COLLive. “I thought the end of the world had come.”
Monteagudo, the 64-year-old, escaped, too, after awakening in Unit 611 in the wee hours of Thursday morning. “It’s like something supernatural woke me up. I felt something strange,” she told The Post.
She got up to check her apartment. In December, she had spent all the money she received in her divorce — $600,000 cash — to buy the unit.
She heard a sharp noise, then watched as a crack — two inches wide and growing wider — snaked down her wall, from the ceiling toward the floor. Her instincts kicked in.
“I ran to my bedroom and took off my robe, and changed into any dress and any sandals. I ran to the dining room table, I got my purse and my credit cards. I took the key, I blew out the candle that I light every night for Guadalupe of Mexico,” she said. “I blew out the candle, just in case.”
As she sprinted down the stairs, the building collapsed around her.
At the bottom of the stairs, she waded through water, climbed a wall and eventually made it onto the street, her crushed apartment behind her.
“I lost everything. I don’t have a past,” she said. “But I say, thank God I’m still alive.”
The last to fall: 01 and 12
For seven precious seconds after the building’s central section collapsed, the eastern apartments stayed standing. Then they, too, twisted and fell.
Cassondra Stratton, 40, was standing on the wraparound balcony of Unit 412, its wide windows facing the open ocean, when she saw the pool deck collapse. The model and Pilates instructor had moved into the unit about four years ago, according to her blog, Chic Living 365, decorating it with a nearly floor-to-ceiling mirror and framed photos of Marilyn Monroe.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am here! It’s like a slice of heaven,” she wrote on her blog. “My own little piece of serenity. To wake up every morning and stare out into the vast blue turquoise sea. … It truly is pure bliss!”
Hours before the collapse, Stratton wrote a post about astrology on Instagram.
“It’s been a wild ride these past few weeks,” her post read. “Now we’ll begin to see everything leveling out.”
That night, as the pool deck buckled, she was on the phone with her husband in Denver, her older sister Ashley Dean told The Post. She described what she thought was an earthquake tremor. Then the line went dead.
“She screamed bloody murder, and that was it,” Dean said.
Stratton has not been found, nor has Harry Rosenberg, 57, who lived two floors below her. His best friend, Maurice Waschsmann, told the New York Times that Rosenberg was a “man with a heart of gold.”
Like many of the building’s residents, Rosenberg was devoted to Judaism and regularly attended the Shul, a nearby synagogue. Waschsmann said Rosenberg’s daughter and son-in-law were visiting and are believed to have been in the condo with him when it collapsed.
In Unit 1001, Maria and Claudio Bonnefoy were expecting to see their niece Bettina Obias. Obias flew from Washington to spend time with the power couple — Maria works for the International Monetary Fund and Claudio for the United Nations.
But while she was collecting her luggage at the airport Thursday morning, Obias received a text message about the collapse. She rushed to the scene and screamed when she saw the devastation.
“To see the sheer magnitude, I was certain they were gone,” she said.
The Bonnefoys were a quiet, private couple who took the pandemic extremely seriously. Claudio “did not step out of the building for a year and a half because of covid,” Obias said. “He did not want to die. And yet he died right there. The place collapsed on him.”
The ones left standing
As more than half of the building imploded, the west section somehow stood firm: units 05 through 09.
Residents from those units have told harrowing tales of sprinting down disintegrating stair wells; of jumping over trenches, exposed rebar and slabs of concrete; of breathing the thick dust that swirled through the air.
Mostly, they evacuated with just the clothes on their backs, leaving behind wedding rings, collectible coins, vaccination cards — and their beloved pets, who have now been without their owners for a week.
Along with Champlain Towers South, a community collapsed, neighbors who chatted on the beach and waved at each other from windows, people who shared a space they all called home.
“A lot of friends of mine are gone,” Esther Gorfinkel, who lived in Unit 509, told The Post. “That section that fell down, I know everybody, and some of them were good friends of mine.”
Gorfinkel, 88, saw what had become of her neighbors’ homes from the beach, having gotten out through an emergency exit during the collapse and hurried to the shore.
John Turis’s second home was in Unit 409, right below Gorfinkel’s. He stayed there in April — and never imagined that visit would be his last. When he saw photos of the collapsed building, his mind conjured the children he had met who had just moved in, the neighbors he chatted with in the elevator and the workers whose gift envelopes he filled with Christmas decorations each year.
He said he couldn’t stop thinking about the missing — “people I used to pass in the hallways, say hi from the balcony, talk to in the elevators.”
One of his neighbors was Moshe Candiotti, who lived two doors down in Unit 407. Candiotti, who served in the Israeli army, evacuated from his unit as the building crumbled early Thursday. He spent the next few days in a nearby hotel, where he was united Sunday with his relieved daughter, Dina. He likened the tragedy to the experience of war.
“It’s still trauma in my head,” Candiotti told The Post. “I feel very lucky. Out of all the houses, all the buildings that collapse, and my section didn’t collapse …”
He turned to Dina and hugged her.
“God brought me back,” he said, “to make sure you’re okay.”
Alice Crites, Hannah Knowles, Meryl Kornfield, Zoeann Murphy, María Luisa Paúl, Jaclyn Peiser, Laura Reiley, Lori Rozsa, Andrea Salcedo, Brittany Shammas and Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.