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Surfside families mark a year since Champlain Towers South collapsed

Written by Javed Iqbal

Record-breaking settlements for victims and their relatives have failed to close a year after Surfside, Fla. the condo building collapsed. (Video: Luis Velarde / The Washington Post)
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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 one reason – why did the 12-story building suddenly implode and crash to the ground at dawn on June 24? That answer is probably still years away.

The second is simpler: They would be in the place where it happened. To stand on the spot, which for months was a rubble-strewn disaster area, and then, when the last remnants had been recovered and the piles of rubbish pulled away, a flooded sandbox. A plot surrounded by a chain fence with locked gate and put up for sale.

Early Friday, the victims’ parents, children and siblings were given 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 the building – just after noon. First Lady Jill Biden will speak at a public memorial event later in the morning.

“It’s a way of being in a place we were not allowed to be 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 in that place.”

On the anniversary of one of the worst building defects in U.S. 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 death. Florida has adopted some condo security reforms, but there are doubts about how effectively they can be implemented. A judge on Thursday gave the final approval of a $ 1.2 billion settlement to families who lost loved ones, but it gives no answer as to what happened and assigns no guilt.

“It’s a year ago, 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 plan the weekend’s events – much of which involves the site of the collapse. Surfside city officials turned on 98 torches around the nearly two-acre plot where the building once stood. A large eight-foot torch will remain lit at the site for nearly a month, marking the time it took rescue workers to find the last remains buried in the rubble.

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

Relatives must complete requirements forms asking them to “describe how the loss of the deceased has affected the life of this survivor.” The document requests that they note “any mental anguish, grief or sorrow” they have suffered as well as the loss of “care, guidance, counsel, advice, training, protection, community, comfort or camaraderie.”

“Many of my clients, they have not really been able to grieve to focus on the loss because so much else has happened 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 at every meeting, hearing or event. And now they have to fill out a form so someone can put a value on each person’s life to determine how much they get.”

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

Oren Cytrynbaum lived in Champlain Towers South, and his parents also owned a unit in the building. None of them were there at the time of the crash, placing them in the “only financial loss” class of victims.

“You will never be able to compare the two. You can not compare loss of life with property or financial loss,” said Cytrynbaum. “all their possessions. It can not be compared, but it does not remove what hurts.”

All over it stands the unanswered question of what happened and why.

“This is a terrible situation for the families. I know they want to know why that building fell. We all want to know,” said Charles Burkett, who was mayor of Surfside at the time of the crash. “But many people basically want to close the book and get everyone to move on, to move on with life. But we need answers. “

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

“We have not ruled out anything at this time,” a NIST update from this month said.

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

NIST works with a budget of $ 22 million investigation expected to take up to five years.

“There are huge consequences for the safety of life for buildings throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world,” the NIST update states.

Despite the slow pace of a complex investigation, Emily Guglielmo, former president of the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, said Champlain Towers South failed in time. will probably lead to new building regulations at the national level.

“It’s made us question everything,” Guglielmo said. “Do we have the right codes? Do we have the right construction? Is there a climate problem? Is there a problem with sea level? Across the board, from design to construction to how to maintain a building, there are conversations that take place directly as a result of Surfside, which did not take place before that. “

Lawmakers in Florida, after being criticized for not taking action in the state’s regular legislative meeting, met in a special session last month and passed condominium security reforms. They include more frequent building inspections – Champlain Towers South underwent its 40-year inspection when it collapsed – and a requirement for condominiums to collect and save money in reserve for maintenance. Some questions whether the state has enough civil engineers to make the new standards a reality.

A grand jury in Miami-Dade County recommended dozens of changes to building inspection requirements, including reducing the 40-year time frame for recertification – even if their proposals were not binding. At the federal level, South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) announced Thursday that she would present a bill next week to provide low-interest financing to condominium associations to pay for structural maintenance.

Debate and disagreement among condominium board members in Champlain Towers South about the cost of necessary maintenance delayed preparations for repairs for three years. The concrete restoration work was to begin when half of the building collapsed.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said families receive updates every two weeks in an effort to be transparent and “do everything we can to show that we are with them, that we work with them to come in response. “

The rescue teams worked around the clock, from June 24 to July 20, when the last remains were found. But only three people were rescued alive, including Jonah Handler and his mother, Stacie Fang. First aiders pulled them up from the rubble, after a man walking with his dog nearby heard Handler’s call for help.

Fang died at the hospital later that day. Handler, who is now 16, was seriously injured but has recovered enough to start playing baseball again. He and his father, Neil Handler, have hosted a gala charity event Saturday night to raise money for first aiders, trauma victims, veterans, their families and communities. The Handlers named the charity The Phoenix Life Project with a goal of “bringing serenity to misfortune.”

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

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

He said the charity is a way for his son to move on, as well as the more gloomy moments, such as the candlelight vigil at the venue.

“We are all bound by this disaster and we will all heal in different ways,” he said. “It is important to celebrate those we lost and also to come together in a spirit of love and forgiveness.”

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Javed Iqbal

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