SURFSIDE, Fla. – On Wednesday night, Steve Rosenthal was among the people who trusted Champlain Towers South in Surfside was safe enough to fall asleep in.
The 72-year-old resident of Unit 705 said he woke up to “the loudest thunderclap” he had ever heard in his life. Five seconds later, his bed was rocking and shaking. Dust was coming in from the ceiling and hitting him in the face.
“I go to my front door, it leads to the hallway, all dust don’t see a thing,” Rosenthal said. “I’m seeing all the rubble, all the cement, the ceiling, everything is falling down and people are yelling, ‘Help me! Help me get me out!’”
The 12-story northern section of the L-shaped building collapsed shortly before 2 a.m. at 8777 Collins Ave. Residents of neighboring buildings said they too woke up to loud noise. Some said their windows shook and there was a large white cloud of dust. Rosenthal said there was no way for him to get out of his apartment, which was the last line standing.
“If I am in 704, I am dead,” Rosenthal said Monday. “I am the first unit that survived on that side.”
Fire Rescue personnel moved to evacuate trapped survivors with a cherry picker. Rosenthal said the process was agonizingly slow. People waited for their turns in their balconies hoping the rest of the building would hold.
“Finally they get up to the 7th floor. They pull me in. It’s not that easy to get into it. You’ve got railings ... they gotta pull you in,” Rosenthal said, adding he is grieving for the neighbors who didn’t make it out alive.
An army of rescuers wearing hard hats moved in. Dogs started sniffing the scattered ruins for clues. Authorities used a warehouse to store the items recovered. Crews were using a crane to carefully remove metal, concrete, and other hazardous debris that could fall from above. The tech used included drones and robots.
Experts from as far as Israel and Argentina traveled to the site with the hope of helping to find survivors. Search-and-rescue teams continued to tunnel through a compact mountain of pancaked concrete on Monday evening. They had been taking turns to search day and night while facing sporadic rain and spontaneous fires. More than 150 people remained unaccounted for.
As the world wondered how this could be possible in Florida, where hurricanes have forced officials to increase structural standards, a troublesome 2018 report surfaced. It shows engineers had reported there was major structural damage at Champlain Towers South. Rosenthal was among the property owners who were going to contribute their part in more than $9 million in projects.
Officials said the 1981 building was in the process of recertification, which is required every 40 years and involves scrutinizing every part of the residential property. Rosenthal filed a lawsuit against Champlain Towers South Condominium Association alleging there was negligence when a lack of maintenance led to the deterioration that caused the collapse.
“It’s sad. And people ask me, ‘Where are you going to go? Where are you going to be?’ Well, for sure I am not getting a condo on the beach,” Rosenthal said. “That’s done!”
The first lawsuit against the association was filed hours after the collapse. Donna Berger, a lawyer with the Becker law firm that represents the homeowner’s association, told USA Today that she categorized the lawsuit seeking more than $5 million in damages “as despicable.” She added the association’s vice president is among the residents who were unaccounted for.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said it’s going to take time to find out with certainty what exactly caused the tragedy. Engineers with The National Institute of Standards and Technology are collecting preliminary information to make a recommendation about whether or not a federal probe into the cause of the collapse is needed.
Related story: Geologist warned of instability in Surfside
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the findings of the NIST probe and other investigations could allow federal and state lawmakers to make changes to prevent a future tragedy. As countless unanswered questions lingered, the Miami-Dade Police Department was slowly releasing the identities and ages of the victims.
Related story: Loved ones name those they say are missing
Stacie Dawn Fang, 54, died on Thursday on her way to the Aventura hospital after crews pulled her out of the rubble. Her 15-year-old son survived after he managed to get the attention of a neighbor who was near the rubble. Crews also recovered the body of Antonio Lozano, 83.
On Friday, crews found the bodies of Lozano’s wife, Gladys Lozano, 79, and Manuel “Manny” LaFont, 54. On Saturday, crews found the bodies of Luis Bermudez, 26, Ana Ortiz, 46, Marcus Guara, 52, and Leon Oliwkowicz, 80. On Sunday, crews found the body of Christina Beatriz Elvira Oliwkowicz, 74. On Monday, crews found Frank Kleinman, 55, and Michael Altman, 50.
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