After all, they were living in paradise – right on the Atlantic Ocean in the relatively quiet town of Surfside, just north of Miami Beach.
But in the middle of the night, their sense of safety along the beach evaporated violently as the building’s pool deck suddenly collapsed. Half of the 12-storey building will follow in minutes.
The floor shattered after the broken floor shattered into a huge pile of crumbled concrete and twisted steel as the building’s support systems failed.
When it was over, 98 people had died, and it would be weeks before emergency workers could reach and identify the final victims.
One year later, as we remember those who lost their lives, comfort their bereaved families, and offer support to the men and women who responded to the tragedy, the painful lessons we learned at Surfside have shaped statewide public policy.
Questions about the safety of a Florida apartment remain.
“I didn’t know what was going on”
Surfside is not South Beach. It’s a relatively quiet community where nightlife often takes place in front of the TV rather than out in the city. So, when a 12-story building collapsed at 1:22 a.m., there weren’t many people walking around to watch.
However, the response was impossible to miss.
“I was home. I heard a set of sirens. Heading north,” said Shlomo Danziger, the current mayor of Collins Street. “I have an 18-year-old daughter who has been out to see a movie. She was on her way home and called me…she was frantic. She said, Dad, a building just collapsed.”
First responders immediately recognized the scale of the disaster and elicited a massive multi-agency response.
The search for survivors began immediately, as the neighbors were desperate to help in any way possible.
98 people lost their lives
Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, friends – each of the 98 people who died left an indelible mark on everyone who knew and loved them.
However, a year after the apartment collapses, honoring their memories remains tentative.
The youngest victim was only a year old, according to Miami news station WSVN. Ishani Jia Pat’s body was found with her parents. Their names and later ages along with all others were imprinted on the black tarp, wrapped around the chain-link fence that surrounded the now demolished building.
“This is an endless nightmare.” Pablo Langsfeld said of the loss of his 26-year-old daughter Nikki in the meltdown. “I don’t think it will ever stop being a horror movie.”
But, family members remain determined to honor their loved ones by erecting a permanent memorial.
Through aggregates and rebar
With each passing second, making the possibility of staying away, the men and women digging through a mountain of concrete and rebar did not have enough time to absorb the tragedy that was already unfolding.
Hope fueled – the slim chance of finding someone alive in the wreckage bolstered members of Florida Task Force 3 and 4 to keep going.
Alex Ralls-Novo, a senior staff member who knows the emotional stress of a painstaking research process, said.
Inevitably, his team’s 12-hour bouts in the sweltering heat turned from a rescue mission to a heartbreaking recovery. While none of the responders sustained any physical injuries – an astonishing feat considering all the lurking dangers – many left the scene with scars.
But they also came home with important lessons they learned.
Prevent future tragedies
Millions of Florida residents live in high-rise apartments, so the deadly avalanche at Surfside has left many wondering how safe they really are in their homes.
State lawmakers in the immediate aftermath promised to do whatever was necessary to prevent another tragedy, but the proposed bills went nowhere in Tallahassee — at least until last month.
During a special session to address the unrelated property insurance crisis, the Florida House and Senate passed legislation to ensure residents can live safely in similar buildings.
All Florida apartments of three floors or longer must undergo a structural integrity check before 2025, and their associations must keep sufficient funds in reserve to fully fund all necessary repairs.
“If these small problems are not dealt with through proper maintenance or through proper periodic inspections, these problems can swell and become bigger problems,” said Joel Figueroa Valens, forensic construction engineer.
He and his team were chosen to investigate the collapse of Surfside and make recommendations. They created a 3D model using the original blueprints of the Champlain Tower and found that the catastrophic flaws were literally built in.
“The structure really doesn’t stand a chance, if it has a little redundancy, once that first floor collapsed…there weren’t any beams on that floor,” he explained.
“It was not God’s work”
For many, the developments in Tallahassee do not address the question that still lingers in the minds of those who lost family members and friends in the Surfside crash: How did it come about?
They are left with memories of a life ending in seconds, and a year after the tragedy, they say grief continues to unfold.
It’s like when you’re on a rollercoaster, and you’re going down. That’s the feeling in the stomach. It’s a hole. That’s it. I don’t think about anything. I just feel it,” said Ronit Naibrev, who lost her 21-year-old son Ilan in a meltdown. .
Amid the ongoing investigation and court proceedings, Naibrev says her family has not been able to move forward – and they still need answers.