USA TODAY International Edition
‘ Daddy, we want to hug you again’
A neighborhood of lives lost in Champlain Towers South
There were no household names among the victims of the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, nearly one month ago. But the beachfront tower was full of interesting people from around the world, cherished by friends and families. Children as young as 4- year- old Emma Guara. Grandmothers such as 92- year- old Hilda Noriega. Married couples, college students, retirees, visitors. Asleep behind every door, someone who was loved.
When the walls of Champlain Towers South started tumbling, they brought down 12 stories of building materials, and within them, stories of decent lives indecently ended.
Kids as young as Emma Guara, 4. Grandmothers as old as Hilda Noriega, 92. Couples such as Antonio and Gladys Lozano, who were one month shy of celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary, and Frankie and Annie Kleiman, who had been married for less than a month.
Brilliant young college students eager to start their careers. Retirees eager to enjoy their golden years. Asleep behind every door, somebody’s cherished “abuela,” parent, husband, wife, sister, brother, cousin, nephew, niece, godfather, grandchild or friend.
There were also those passing through, such as Francis Fernandez Plascencia, 67, a mother of three. On the night of the collapse, she went with her friend, Maggie Vazquez- Bello, to the “Beyond Van Gogh” art exhibit at the Ice Palace Studio in Miami.
Rather than drive to her home in South Miami, Plascencia decided to spend the night at her friend’s Surfside condo in Champlain Towers South.
Demise of a neighborhood
This was a building of close- knit, international families, where English, Spanish and Hebrew flowed interchangeably. It was a vertical neighborhood, where Simon Segal, 80, a Cubanborn man who spoke five languages, lived alone in a penthouse apartment above it all and was known affectionately as “Simoncito.”
Seven stories below, in Unit 503, three generations of the Cattarossi family died that night. From Stella, 7, to her mother, Graciella, 47, who shared her bed, to the grandparents in the next room, Graciella, 86, and Gino, 89. They had been visited that night by the mother’s sister, Andrea, who also died, breaking the hearts of three sons in Argentina.
Stella’s father, a Miami- Dade firefighter, worked the pancaked pile of the broken building days later when his daughter’s remains were found.
These are snippets of sadness that the rest of the world has been learning during the past month, as grieving family members cope with their losses and tell the stories of their loved ones.
Remembering those lost
Ingrid “Itty” Ainsworth, 66, was a bit of a character, her family and friends remember.
“She surpasses the saying, ‘ Seeing the world through rose- colored glasses,’” Itty’s daughter, Chana Wasserman, wrote in a blog post last year. “My mother sees the world through rainbow- colored glasses with unicorns and dolphins diving in and out.”
Itty and her husband, Tzvi, 68, ( nicknamed “Tzvi the Tzaddik”) died in the collapse. The woman’s close friend, Sori Block, said Itty lived her life more deeply than anyone else she knew.
“Itty gave something that is a rare commodity today: time,” Block wrote on a Chabad website. “In a world where we are constantly rushing and running, her world was an oasis of calm and charm, wit and wisdom, seashells and sunset – family, friends and fantastic conversations. She invigorated, intoxicated, energized and pacified you with her presence.”
The building collapse took down the bedroom where Itty and her husband slept but left intact a portion of their unit just a few feet away.
"If they would have been in the kitchen, they would have been fine," said their son, Dovy.
Agony for the missing
The sight of Brad Cohen’s 12- year- old daughter, Elishiva, praying alone by the site days after the collapse captivated and haunted Surfside’s Mayor Charles Burkett.
“When I came across her, she was sitting in a chair by herself, nobody around her, looking at her phone,” Burkett said during a news conference four days after the collapse. “And I knelt down and asked her, ‘ So what are you doing?’
“She was reading a Jewish prayer to herself, sitting at the site where one of her parents presumably is,” the mayor continued. “And that really brought it home to me. She wasn’t crying. She was just lost. She didn’t know what to do. Who to talk to.”
Burkett, who arranged for the girl to meet President Joe Biden during his trip to Surfside, said he couldn’t stop thinking of her.
“I am going to find her, and I am going to tell her that we’re all here for her and we are going to do the best we can to bring out that parent,” the mayor said.
The building collapse claimed victims looking forward to new directions in South Florida, the land of fresh starts.
Harold Rosenberg, 52, moved from New York to Florida a year ago after the death of his wife, Ana, from brain cancer. Rosenberg quit his job in New York’s financial industry and planned to create a mental health treatment facility in Israel, a project his wife had begun before she died.
Misery followed him, first the deaths of his parents from COVID- 19, then the collapse of his new home at Champlain Towers South.
With him that night were his 27- yearold daughter, Malky Weitz, and her husband, Benny, 32, who had arrived days before to pay him a visit from Lakewood, New Jersey.
At first, families clung to hope that somehow their missing loved ones would emerge from the mountain of pancaked rubble or be found alive.
The 19- year- old sister of Andreas Giannitsopolous, 21, was sure that if anybody could survive, it would be her decathlon athlete big brother, an incoming senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The college student was inside the Surfside condo that night because he decided to stay longer than his mother during a trip to see his godfather, Manuel “Manny” LaFont, 54.
Life of the party
LaFont, who lived on the eighth floor of the building, was remembered with laughter as well as tears at his memorial service. He was, by all accounts, a lover of good food, dancing and sports – and a people magnet. He discovered the existence of his brother, Ray, a little more than nine years ago.
“He said, ‘ I don’t need a DNA test,’” Ray Perez said at LaFont’s memorial service. “‘ We are brothers.’”
Some of the best times they shared, Ray said, were sitting on the balcony of LaFont’s condo being “true to one another.”
“He loved those that were dear to him, and he loved them hard,” his brother said. “Those that he really loved, he gave his heart to, and he gave his heart to me.”
LaFont’s two children, Mia, 13, and Santi, 10, were in his Champlain Towers South condo that night. In a blessing of good fate, his ex- wife, Adriana LaFont, picked up the children to bring them home with her a few hours before the building collapsed.
In the early days after the collapse, the ex- wife agonized over the loss of her children’s father, praying for a miracle that he was alive.
“So many memories inside the walls that are no more today, forever engraved experiences in the heart!” she wrote on Facebook. “My Manny, who was my partner for so many years, father of my children, who scolds me and loves me at the same time.
“‘ Adriana, be on time!!’ ‘ Adriana, don’t change the plans!!’ Adrianna, Adriana ...
“Follow the hopes, my children are clinging to the miracle of life,” she continued. “Manny, Daddy, we want to hug you again to tell you how much we love you.”
Lives of promise
Ilan Naibrf and his girlfriend, Deborah Berezdivin, were both 21 years old and seemed destined for great things.
He was an incoming senior at the University of Chicago, where he majored in physics. He had started a company that created a stock currency payment platform that allows users to sell fractional shares of stock.
She was raised in Puerto Rico and was an incoming junior at George Washington University.
“Deborah is the type of person that would do anything for her loved ones and will always tell you what is right,” the GW Hillel Instagram page posted after her death. “She is passionate about many things including her family and friends and also shares a huge love for sushi, fashion, and her favorite show ‘ Sex and the City.’ ”
Ilan and Deborah met at Camp Judea and maintained a long- distance relationship.
His family lives in Weston in Broward County. On the night they died, they decided to spend the night at her family’s condo in Champlain Towers South because it was closer to a funeral they planned to attend the next day.
The last image of the couple was snapped as a selfie on Deborah’s cellphone and sent to her boyfriend’s mother at 10: 36 p. m., a little less than three hours before the building crumbled.
In the photo, the two of them are posing inside an elevator car at the condo. Behind them, the red- light display shows they are on the lobby floor with a red arrow pointing up.
The funeral scheduled for the next day – for a person who had died from COVID- 19 – had drawn other people to the Champlain Towers that night.
Songwriter had more to say
Jay Kleiman, who lived in Puerto Rico, traveled to Surfside for the funeral and was spending the night at the seventh- floor Champlain Towers South condo owned by his mother, Nancy Kress Levin.
Kleiman ran his own women’s apparel design and merchandising business in Puerto Rico when he wasn’t writing songs and producing albums.
He had completed his third album in April and was happy with the result and looking ahead.
“These songs are truly me,” he wrote about his new music. “They are an open book into who I am. There are more songs coming, I am not done saying what I want to say.”
He and his mother died, and in another apartment down the hall, so did his brother, Frank, 55, his newlywed wife, Ana, and her son, Luis Bermudez, 26, who had muscular dystrophy.
Coming to terms
Stephanie McManus is coping with the loss of her mother, Elaine Sabino, 71, a JetBlue flight attendant who lived in a penthouse unit in the condo.
“I am so sad for the lost opportunities with her,” McManus wrote. “We were going to travel one day and be closer. I wanted us to be ‘ friends’ as we got older, not only a mother and a daughter.
“And, it hurts so much that all of the possibility for a future with her is gone. But talking about how ‘ big’ she tried to live her life helps a little and reminds me that we should all focus on living well even when it is hard.”
Paul George, a Miami historian who leads walking tours of Surfside, said the collapse of Champlain Towers South will probably be a historical event for South Florida in the same league as the unnamed hurricane of 1928 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“This is our first human- made disaster,” George said. “Some people will leave condominiums, but America tends to heal itself. And so it will move forward with some improved safety measures.”
A judge has cleared the condo's property for sale. But there’s no going back there, George said.
“The only logical thing to do is to make a memorial site out of it,” George said. “It seems that’s the way it’s got to go.”