Town ‘starts the healing process’ as search nears end
As summer camp returns to the Surfside Community Center, residents and town officials look for some normalcy after the Champlain Towers South collapse.
Nearly a month after the Surfside Community Center was converted into an emergency-operations hub in the aftermath of one of the worst building failures in U.S. history, the site buzzed on Monday with the sound of children playing.
Just weeks prior, the center was engulfed in sadness. Evacuated residents and distraught family members filled the oceanfront civic center after the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South six blocks away. Authorities performed onsite DNA testing to help identify victims. A restaurateur and a team of volunteers set up a food operation on the pool deck.
For the 70 kids in Surfside’s summer-camp program, Monday marked their first day back at the community center since before the collapse. They played in the pool, went to the park and brought their outside voices inside, their bursts of excitement echoing throughout the building.
As the search operation at the collapse site nears its end and what’s left of Champlain Towers South is hauled away as evidence, residents of Surfside are beginning to emerge from the emotional
wreckage of a tragedy that tore apart almost 100 families overnight.
The reopening of the town’s community center to campers and the rest of the community is one step that the town is taking toward finding some closure, said Parks and Recreation Director Tim Milian.
“It’s like bricks in the wall, you start building the wall back together,” Milian said. “This starts the healing process, at least on our end.”
He said the first brick was laid on Friday, when the pool opened, welcoming back swimmers who were diverted to pools in neighboring cities. Another will come next week, when swim lessons return. Then, youth soccer will soon start back up at the 96th Street park.
Some of the last steps toward normalcy will surely come when the town reopens its tennis center, located directly across the street from the collapsed tower and within the perimeter that police set up around the site. The western side of the tennis center is the scene of a makeshift memorial for victims of the collapse, which President Joe Biden visited in June. Milian said he isn’t sure when the town will reopen the center, but it would require at least a week of preparation and cleaning.
“Eventually you start moving in that direction,” Milian said.
‘IT’S THE RIGHT TIME TO TAKE OUR TOWN BACK’
A heaviness has hung over Surfside since the early morning hours of June 24, when the tiny town on a half-squaremile spit of land became the center of a national tragedy. The main roads in and out — Collins and Harding avenues — were choked by roadblocks. Truckloads of FEMA rescue teams and a crush of national media and volunteers from around the globe enveloped the town’s 5,600-resident population. The sprawling North Beach Oceanside Park, located a few hundred feet from the collapse site, was converted into a tent city for search teams.
After dropping off her daughter at camp Monday morning, Surfside resident Mackenzie McNierney said 6-year-old Anabela knows “something bad” happened and donated some of her toys to help the affected families.
She said resuming normal life was helping her cope with the tragedy.
“I think you have to at some point,” she said. “There’s only so long you can dwell on something like that and instead you need to use it, I feel like, to help you move forward.”
Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul, who learned to swim at the community center, said the pain in Surfside has been broadcast across the world but people often feel alone in their grief.
“It’s the right time to take our town back,” she said in an interview last week at Town Hall. “With everyone leaving, we’re left to pick up the pieces. And that’s what we have to do.”
It’s a sentiment that Gabriel Groisman, mayor of neighboring Bal Harbour, shared during a vigil near the collapse memorial marking the third week since the tower fell. In the Jewish religion, he said, mourners sit shiva for seven days after the death of a loved one, surrounded by friends and extended family in their home. The eighth day is said to be the hardest, he said, “when everybody leaves the house.”
He said the town, which has a tight-knit Jewish community, has felt “the embrace of the world” over the last several weeks. But when the media attention fades, he said, the community must continue to embrace the families of those who died in the collapse.
“We have to make sure, though, that there is no eighth day,” he said.
TRAGEDY BROUGHT COMMUNITY TOGETHER
The condo collapse burned a hole in the Surfside community — “everybody knew somebody,” many in town say — but the crisis also united the town.
Following the collapse, volunteer groups quickly formed to deliver essential goods to families and feed first responders. Justina Santucho, 18, volunteered in a Miami Beach parking lot Thursday with Kelly Gold, the mother of a former classmate of Santucho’s, handing out donuts to police and other
volunteers as they headed to the collapse site.
Santucho, a Surfside resident, said the tragedy showed how interconnected the community was. A friend of her sister was injured in the collapse. A friend of her mother’s survived unharmed.
“I just think with everything that happened it helps everyone come together. I don’t feel like we realized how many people actually lived in the building. There were so many people that everyone just knew, from walking or just going to Publix. I just think it helps everyone come together because they have to start their life from zero,” she said.
Gold, who lived in Surfside for 14 years but now lives in Brickell, said what makes Surfside a special community makes the tragedy that much more painful. She remembers
feeling warm inside walking past other residents, who all seemed to know each other or of each other.
“Everyone knew someone. So when you walk around Surfside, everyone smiles, everyone would wave,” she said. “It’s just very warm and welcoming.”
The scale of the disaster will also make the healing process more difficult. It’s not yet known what caused the collapse, which is under investigation, and it remains unclear when authorities will conclude the recovery operation as medical examiners continue the slow, painstaking work of identifying the remains of victims recovered from the collapse site.
A funeral was held Monday for orthopedic surgeon Brad Cohen, who died in the collapse alongside his brother and
whose body was recovered July 7. His daughter, 12-year-old Elisheva, was staying in Miami Beach on the night the building fell. She remembered bicycling on the beach path on Father’s Day, the Sunday before the collapse.
“I think it’s going to take years and years for everyone to heal because this is not just an accident that affected a couple of people. This is hundreds of people, hundreds of families,” Gold said.
Not everyone is going to be around to help pick up the pieces.
Moshe Candiotti, 76, lived in Unit 407 of Champlain Towers South, located in a section of the building that remained standing after the initial collapse and was later detonated. He said he plans to move away. He said the collapse felt like “the earth swallowed the building.”
“I’m going to go far away from the ocean,” he said in an interview Thursday.
But his move won’t be for a lack of community support. Candiotti moved to Champlain South about 16 months ago after living in South Beach. He said he was amazed by how residents and governments came together to help.
“I didn’t expect it,” he said. “I feel the help.”
Before spending the day meeting with families, volunteers and first responders last week, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett
said the town has always been tight-knit but the collapse “bonded it further.”
“Anybody that was wondering whether or not Surfside was a community that was together and built on love and family doesn’t wonder about that anymore,” he said in an interview Thursday.
He later visited the community center, where he hugged Milian, the Parks and Recreation director, and applauded the efforts of staff who opened the center to evacuated residents within minutes of the collapse. Some of the same employees who helped with the disaster are running the town’s summer-camp program.
“It was like family. It wasn’t government,” Burkett said.
As the search mission enters what Burkett calls “the beginning of the end,” he said some residents have told him they would like to regain a sense of normalcy.
“Obviously, they’d like to get a little piece of their life back...” he said. “The number one obligation that we have as a town is to support the effort to bring the victims out and support the families. Once that’s done and once that’s under control, we can start to look at next steps for attempting to normalize life in Surfside.”