SURFSIDE, Fla. — Fast asleep and unaware of what was about to happen, the residents of Champlain Towers South had no reason to question their safety the night of June 24, 2021.
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 shore violently evaporated as the building’s pool deck suddenly collapsed. Half of the 12-story structure would follow minutes later.
Floor after fractured floor crashed down into a massive pile of crumbled concrete and twisted steel as the building’s support systems failed.
When it was all over, 98 people were dead, and it would be weeks before emergency workers were able reach the final victims and identify them.
One year later, as we remember those who lost their lives, comfort their grieving families and support the men and women who responded to the tragedy, painful lessons learned in Surfside have shaped public policy statewide.
Still, questions about Florida condo safety linger.
‘I didn’t know what was going on’
Surfside isn’t South Beach. It’s a relatively quiet community where nightlife often takes place in front of the TV rather than out on the town. So, when a 12-story condo building collapsed at 1:22 a.m., there weren’t many people walking around to witness it.
The response, however, was impossible to miss.
“I was at home. I heard a bunch of sirens. From Collins Ave. going north,” Shlomo Danziger, the city’s current mayor, said. “I have an 18-year-old daughter who was out to a movie. She was on her way home and gave me a call … She was frantic. She said, ‘Dad, a building just came down.'”
First responders instantly realized the magnitude of the disaster and triggered a massive, multi-agency response.
The search for survivors began right away, with neighbors desperate to help in any way they could.
98 lives lost
Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends — each of the 98 people who died left an indelible mark on all those who knew and loved them.
A year after the condo collapse, however, the tribute to their memories remains temporary.
The youngest victim was just one year old, according to Miami news station WSVN. Aishani Gia Pat’s body was found with her parents’. Their names and ages were later printed on alongside all the others on a black tarp, wrapped around the chain-link fence that surrounds the now-demolished building.
“This is a never-ending nightmare.” Pablo Langesfeld said of losing his 26-year-old daughter, Nicky, in the collapse. “I don’t think it will ever stop to be a horror movie.”
But, family members remain determined to honor their loved ones with a permanent memorial.
Through rubble and rebar
With every passing second making the possibility of survival more remote, the men and women digging through the mountain of concrete and rebar didn’t have time to truly internalize the unfolding tragedy.
Hope became fuel — the slim chance of finding someone alive in the debris powered the members of Florida Task Forces 3 and 4 to keep going.
“I pride myself on being able to do this job to help people, to save lives — I don’t go into these situations to sift through material to pull out not lives,” said Alex Ralls-Novo, a senior Task Force member who knows all too well the emotional strain of a painstaking search.
Inevitably, his team’s 12-hour shifts in the blistering heat transitioned from a rescue mission to a heartbreaking recovery operation. While none of the responders were physically injured — and incredible feat given the all inherent dangers — many left the scene with scars.
But, they also came home with important lessons learned.
Preventing future tragedies
Millions of Floridians live in high-rise condos, so the deadly collapse in Surfside left many people wondering just how safe they really are in their own homes.
State lawmakers promised in the immediate aftermath to do whatever was necessary to prevent another tragedy, but their proposed bills went nowhere in Tallahassee — at least not until last month.
During a special session to address the unrelated property insurance crisis, Florida’s House and Senate passed legislation to ensure residents are living safely in similar buildings.
All Florida condos three stories or taller must now undergo a structural integrity inspection before 2025, and their associations must keep enough money in reserve to fully fund all necessary repairs.
“If those smaller issues don’t get addressed through proper maintenance or through proper periodic inspections, then those issues can magnify and become larger problems,” said Joel Figueroa Vallines, a forensic structural engineer.
He and his team were chosen to investigate the Surfside collapse and make recommendations. They created a 3D model using Champlain Tower’s original blueprints and found the catastrophic flaws were literally built in.
“The structure really doesn’t stand a chance, if it has little redundancy, once that first floor collapsed … there weren’t any beams on that floor,” he explained.
‘It was not an act of God’
For many, the developments in Tallahassee don’t address the question that still lingers in the minds of those who lost family members and friends in the Surfside collapse: How could it have happened?
They’re left with memories of lifetimes ended in seconds, and a year after the tragedy, they say that grief continues to manifest.
“Its kind of like when you are on a rollercoaster, and you are going down,” said Ronit Naibryf, who lost her 21-year-old son, Ilan, in the collapse. “It is that feeling in the stomach. It’s a pit. That’s it. I don’t think about anything. I just feel it.”