The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the collapsed tower, a microcosm of a multicultural city

Smoke pours from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building after the residential building’s partial collapse a day earlier in Surfside, Fla., on June 25, 2021. (Zack Wittman for the Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

A caption with the third photo in this article incorrectly identified one of the people pictured during a psalm reading as Rabbi Eliot H. Pearlson of nearby Temple Menorah. Pearlson was not in the photo, and the man pictured was unidentified. The caption has been corrected.

SURFSIDE, Fla. — The scent of ropa vieja — a savory meat dish — would waft through the halls on the Sabbath, drifting from the doorways of Cuban Jewish people who'd fled Fidel Castro. Spanish and English — with identifiable accents from Argentina to Australia — were the elevators' lingua francas. But you'd hear Hebrew and Russian and other languages in the Tower of Babel that was Champlain Towers.

A cousin of the father of former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet lived in Unit 1001. Before it came down, you could see the turquoise blue of the Atlantic Ocean from his balcony. The sister of Paraguay’s first lady stayed in the same building. She’s still missing, prompting President Mario Abdo Benítez to cancel his agenda. Because in greater Miami — a metropolis that can sometimes seem barely attached to the United States — the local is international.

Every other door in the Champlain south building seemed to have a mezuza, a symbolic ornament holding verses from the Torah. Residents laughed at poolside barbecues (some kosher, some not), as the rhythms of Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, played. In late December, a Christmas tree and menorah would grace the lobby.

“The Christmas tree and menorah were indicative of the open-minded community at Champlain towers; it was, I would say, a very good place,” said Rabbi Eliot H. Pearlson of Temple Menorah, a nearby synagogue, who frequently visited the building for meals and ministering. “If you looked inside, it had Jews — orthodox, conservative, of all kinds — and Christians and Cubans and Venezuelans and Argentines. It was, almost by definition, just like Miami Beach, like Miami-Dade County.”

The collapse of the south building at Champlain Towers is a Miami story — a multicultural tragedy in a microcosm of a metropolis that sits at the nexus of the United States and Latin America and battles deep in the trenches of climate change. The residents of Champlain, like most of Miami’s multilingual masses, face constantly encroaching coastlines, rising waters, flooding streets and parking garages. They put up with the challenges for the perks, living what seem like the last heady days of Atlantis in a city that has always toed a line between paradise and precarious.

It symbolized the Latin money that turned Spanish into Miami’s language of power. Like the satellite town they lived in — Surfside, where 40 percent of the restaurants are Kosher — its residents were also heavily Jewish.

The blow to Miami’s Jewish population — the most diverse community of its kind in the country as 33 percent of it is foreign born — is palpable in the tear-streaked beards and impromptu prayer services at community centers, synagogues, sidewalks and front yards along Collins and Harding avenues.

Asleep in their beachfront condos, they vanished into a mountain of rubble

“Wait, Rabbi, I can see the Applebaums coming,” said a woman one and a half blocks from the disaster site, as Pearlson began a prayer service for the two dozen members of his congregation still missing in the pile of rubble just within eyeshot. “I can see his cane.”

After the short service — held on a neighbor’s front yard under the shade of a palm tree as feral parrots flew overhead — Adam Schwartzbaum, a 36-year-old attorney, fought back tears.

Schwartzbaum’s grandparents, who moved to the United States from Cuba in 1961, had lived at Champlain for 30 years. They passed before the tragedy, but he remained close to their now-missing neighbors, Arnold “Arnie” Notkin, 87, a jovial former gym teacher, and his wife, Myriam Caspi Notkin, 81.

“Arnie was hilarious — he always had a twinkle in his eye, he’d always have a funny story, always telling a joke,” Schwartzbaum said. “Myriam was like the sweet, regular, Jewish lady. She was friends with my great aunt, who spoke to her the day before this happened. They spoke together every day.”

“Oh, that building! It was the center of our lives growing up,” he said. “I’d walk back from Shul with my father, and we’d spend the night there. You’d hear the Celia Cruz playing, mostly from my grandmother’s apartment. We’d have big barbecues by the pool. There would always be plantains.”

Champlain Towers in Surfside — a one-square-mile enclave by the Atlantic Ocean and one spoke in the wheel of 34 incorporated municipalities that make up the complex conurbation of Miami-Dade County — stood at the forefront of the transition from the old Miami to an ever higher, ever more glamorous new one that is still steamrolling forward despite the epic risks of climate change. Built in humbler times — 1981 — Champlain struggled to keep up with the glistening new sky palaces around it, where high net worth individuals hand over Ferraris to valets and glide up to eight-figure condominiums branded by Four Seasons and Fendi.

The glamour of the billionaire beachfront lost a bit of its luster since the collapse; with even the moneyed in their fortresslike towers sleeping a little more poorly. The cause of the collapse remains unknown, but experts have previously sounded alarms about sand erosion and building stability.

Already, Champlain is the flash point of an issue magnified by the collapse — climate change in a city perhaps more susceptible to it than any other in the United States. At an emergency Surfside city council meeting Friday afternoon, local officials said they’ve been fielding calls from panicked residents who want to know if their buildings are safe.

Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer called for a closer look at all condominiums, not just in Surfside, but along the Florida coast.

“What are we not seeing? What’s under the buildings, what’s being eroded by the water?” she said. “What’s safe and what isn’t safe. That’s why we need to take a closer look at this. . . . How can we move forward so any residents of any condo building in the state of Florida is safe.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said an evacuation of one of the collapsed structure’s “sister building” — the separately standing Champlain Tower North — may now be needed. But in a county divided by politics — at Champlain, one source of tension were residents who refused to wear masks — not everyone agrees.

Burkett said he’d spoken to one of former president Donald Trump’s close allies, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who’d suggested the residents should be able to choose.

Said Bettina Obias, niece of Maria Bonnefoy and Claudio Bonnefoy Bachelet, the cousin of the father of Chile’s former president who lived in Unit 1001 and remains missing: “We know pretty much that this place is sinking.”

“They knew . . . a report was issued that the building was sinking,” said Obias, a budget officer for the World Bank in D.C. “When I saw the building, I just screamed. I’m sorry, there were people there, but I got so weak. I screamed and I collapsed.”

Esther Gorfinkel, 88, rescued early Thursday from the south tower as a vast segment of it crumbled, called the complex a reflection of the people who inhabited it.

She’d moved there with her husband in 1983. It wasn’t the perfect building, Gorfinkel said. The roof was aging, the balconies cracked and sun-bleached.

But it was her home, and a vanguard for cultural diffusion. There was a steady stream of visitors, from towns up north to countries in South America. More recently, everyone wanted a chance to bask in the glow of the new Surfside, a once-sleepy community turned playground for the one percent.

Unit rooms were spacious, the children lively. There was a swimming pool and hot tub and the picturesque beach that the building rested on.

“Everybody was enjoying life in the building,” Gorfinkel said.

For all that changed in the years since Gorfinkel first moved in, the sense of community remained. It was Gorfinkel’s neighbors who mounted her on their shoulders and carried her to safety when the south tower toppled.

“I lost friends,” she said.

The building was about to undergo a Miami ritual — the 40-year assessment, an inspection and certification process required for older condominiums. Douglas Berdeaux, whose sister-in-law is still missing, said she had griped of the kind of maintenance problems that form the crux of many a Miami conversation.

“She’d been complaining for the past couple of weeks about the construction on the roof,” he said. “She said she was worried that the ceiling was going to collapse on top of her bed. She also said she heard water around the elevator. All of this was just recently. She went down to talk to the management, and a manager went up to her unit with her and looked around and told her they’re doing some work but everything was okay.”

Champlain was a product of the county where it existed: Miami-Dade, which became a permanent home to Cuban exiles following the island’s revolution in 1959. Their success drove a larger regional migration: Bankers, financiers and more humble but industrious immigrants from Cuba built a Latin power base that later lured Venezuelans, Argentines, Colombians, Chileans and others who saw in Miami a place they could do business in their own language: Spanish.

They built America’s third-largest skyline. They have had to share power with later influxes of Russians, Turks and Chinese — as well as a very recent coronavirus pandemic rush of tech industry transplants from San Francisco and New York.

Around 70 percent of Miami-Dade County’s 2.7 million residents identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2019, per U.S. Census Bureau data. Surfside, the 5,600-person town where the building collapsed Thursday, is Whiter and wealthier than the county as a whole. Nearby, the city’s Argentine community eats empanadas in Little Buenos Aires. It has at least four synagogues.

“In the Jewish community, the largest numbers are from Central and South America, and Israel, but then it goes on, it’s France, Canada, former Soviet Union,” said Jacob Solomon, president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “It’s just an extraordinary cosmopolitan Jewish community.”

The global nature of Miami and Champlain’s residents turned the collapse into a global tragedy, as fraught family members from Mexico, Australia, Israel, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Australia and elsewhere scrambled to secure plane tickets, travel permissions and, in some cases, U.S. travel visas.

For many, they were boarding flights and frantically sourcing accommodations knowing full well that they were probably arriving simply to give DNA samples and recover remains.

“We’re just coming and will wait for the recovery,” said Pascale Bonnefoy, a Chilean author and journalist who writes for the New York Times, and previously wrote for the Washington Post. Her father is Claudio Bonnefoy Bachelet, who moved into the building about 15 years ago.

“We don’t how long it will take,” she said. “We only bought a one-way ticket.”

Just as Argentine, Uruguayan and Paraguayan newspapers offered blanket coverage of a Miami tragedy that was also their own, her father’s disappearance has grabbed headlines in Chile. “Relative of former president Bachelet is reported missing after the collapse of Miami building,” ran a headline in the La Tercera newspaper.

As with other international family members of the missing, Bonnefoy and her sister faced a maze of logistical hurdles to even arrive in the United States, particularly in the midst of Latin America’s still raging pandemic. They needed coronavirus tests for travel, as well as a special travel permission to fly during the pandemic from the Chilean government.

Like so many at Champlain Towers — and Miami more generally — her father was a citizen of the world, traveling frequently before the pandemic between and Miami, Santiago, Chile, and beyond.

“They came back to Chile every year, but because of the pandemic, they didn’t come last year,” Bonnefoy said. “They took covid seriously, and were completely locked up. We had a Zoom meeting with them with my sisters on Sunday. They were going back to normal life.”

David Suggs in Gaithersburg, Md., and Maria Paul, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Claire Parker contributed to this report.