Friday, August 12 2022

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — A year ago, in the middle of the night, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in Surfside, Fla., collapsed with a thunderous roar, leaving a pile of rubble giant and killing 98 – one of the deadliest structure collapses in US history.

The names of each victim were read aloud at a ceremony on Friday to mark the somber anniversary, attended by political figures, first responders and family members of those who died in Champlain Towers South on June 24 2021.

“Exactly 365 days ago, my house imploded, my house collapsed with everything and everyone inside but…I’m alive, and I’m lucky to rediscover something that inspires me to smile again, to fight back, to be a whole person,” said Raquel Oliveira, whose husband and 5-year-old son died in the collapse.

“Let’s not give up justice, love, gratitude, forgiveness. Let’s not give up on life. We haven’t gone this far just to go this far,” she added.

The disaster was the largest hurricane-free emergency response in Florida history. It drew rescue teams from across the United States and as far away as Israel to help local teams dig into the pile and search for victims. They were honored on Friday for their hard work.

“Your dedication and selflessness have been on display to the world,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “Thank you for your heroic efforts.”

Ahead of the public ceremony hosted by the town of Surfside, there was a private torch-lighting rally at the time — at around 1:25 a.m. — when the 136-unit condominium fell a year ago.

First Lady Jill Biden was among the speakers at the public event which also included Governor Ron DeSantis.

“We stand with you today and always,” Biden said in comments briefly interrupted by a standing ovation when she mentioned the firefighters “who have spent weeks working to get your loved ones back.”

“If there’s anything strong enough to help us carry this burden of grief, anything to break its gravitational pull, it’s love,” Biden said.

DeSantis, a Republican, recalled how he was woken up at 3 a.m. the day the building fell and slowly realized the immense scale of the disaster as he drove to Surfside. He thanked first responders and noted that the state budget he recently signed contains $1 million for a memorial to the 98 people lost.

“We will not forget what they meant to this community,” the governor said.

Many victims and family members have worked to put a memorial on the site where the building once stood, but the land is being sold for $120 million to a developer in Dubai and a memorial is likely to be created nearby.

Only two teenagers and a woman survived the collapse, while others escaped from the part of the building that initially remained standing.

Footage of a survivor’s rescue traveled widely, offering a glimmer of hope in the aftermath of the collapse, but the long and grueling search produced generally devastating results as families waited to learn more about the remains of their loved ones.

Among those missing in the collapse were the 7-year-old daughter of a firefighter who helped with the search, later found dead with her mother, aunt and grandparents; a woman whose cries for help were heard in the early morning but suddenly stopped; and two sisters, 4 and 11, pulled from the rubble, who were so small they were buried in the same coffin.

Victims included local residents as well as Orthodox Jewish, Latino, Israeli, European visitors and snowbirds from the Northeast.

The cause of the collapse remains under investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, with the probe entering a new phase this month to cut and drill into concrete and steel. Champlain Towers South had a long history of maintenance issues and shoddy construction techniques were used in the early 1980s. Other possible factors include sea level rise caused by climate change and the damage caused by salt water intrusion.

Pablo Langesfeld, the father of a 26-year-old lawyer who married and moved into the building months before the collapse, said for him closure will not come until this investigation is complete .

“It’s a nightmare that never ends,” Langesfeld told The Associated Press.

Although the investigation is expected to take years, a judge on Thursday approved a compensation settlement exceeding $1 billion for the victims.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman praised the dozens of attorneys involved, and a woman who lost her daughter called them heroes in black dresses and business suits.

Hanzman said the indemnification agreement was extraordinary in its scope and speed. Checks for victims could start going out in September.

“This settlement is the best we can do. It is a remarkable result,” he said.

Yet the wounds are still fresh for the hundreds of people who lost loved ones a year ago.

“Our family has lost everything,” said Kevin Spiegel, whose wife Judy died while he was on a business trip. “A year later, time has not healed my broken heart.”

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