Beloved ‘Dos Elenas’ legacy after Surfside tragedy will be legal reform

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Six-year-old John Rodriguez’s Thursday lunch date with his 64-year-old grandmother, Elena Blasser, and his 88-year-old great-grandmother, Elena Chavez, was canceled. Their family day on Saturday was also canceled. His parents couldn’t bring themselves to tell him why.

His 40-year-old father, Pablo Rodriguez, saw the video showing the Champlain Towers South tragedy. A section of the L-shaped building collapsed shortly before 2 a.m. on Thursday in Miami-Dade County’s oceanside town of Surfside.

The 11th-floor balcony where John had enjoyed a clear view of the Atlantic Ocean and the two-bedroom apartment he associated with family beach time fell down. The most painful image: A second section of the 12-story building pancaked over the pile of concrete to form a compact mountain.

“I lost it at that point because all I see is my mom’s unit coming down because I know where the balcony is,” Rodriguez said. “I saw the balcony completely collapse down and another building fall on top of it. And at that point, that’s the moment I was watching them die.”

Rodriguez said he talked to his mother every day. During a conversation Wednesday, hours before the collapse, she told him she woke up to creaking noises in the middle of the night, and she couldn’t get back to sleep. He just thought she had a bad night and moved on with his day.

“It is a detail I will never forget because at the time I didn’t pay much attention to it,” Rodriguez said.

The search-and-rescue operation at 8777 Collins Ave. started quickly. Fire Rescue crews pulled out a 15-year-old boy who also lived on the 11th floor. He survived but his mother, Stacie Dawn Fang, 54, died on the way to the hospital. Crews have recovered bodies and human remains every day since.

Groups of 10 to 12 heroes wearing hard hats tunneled through the mountain of hazards. They faced intermittent storms and spontaneous fires. Structural engineers checked for the stability of what was left of the building.

The search included highly-trained dogs, robots, drones, sonar tech, cameras, DNA rapid tests, and heavy equipment. At great peril, other teams climbed up the surface with buckets. In the periphery, a crane operator helped to lift metal and concrete.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced Wednesday afternoon that a crew had found the bodies of two children. The Miami-Dade Police Department later identified them as 4-year-old Emma Guara and her 10-year-old sister, Lucia Guara.

After seven days and into the seventh night of searching, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue personnel hadn’t abandoned hope of finding survivors. Rodriguez did. His hope was rescuers were going to find their bodies, so the funeral arrangements could begin and the family could start grieving together.

Six-year-old John Rodriguez poses for photographs with his 64-year-old grandmother, Elena Blasser, right, and his 88-year-old great-grandmother, Elena Chavez, left. (Rodriguez Family Photos)

Meanwhile, his son John had no reason to think about death. He had recently celebrated his sixth birthday. His grandmother had planned to go with him to buy him a new bicycle. It was a belated birthday gift. Blasser and Chavez had been available to talk to him regularly.

Blasser, who had experience as a teacher and administrator for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, always kept an eye on his education. Chavez, a travel agent, wanted him to enjoy adventures, and she taught him by example. She was planning a trip to Turkey.

After the inconveniences of the coronavirus pandemic, the COVID-19 vaccine made a family trip possible. John spent time with Blasser and Chavez. They visited his uncle in Washington, D.C., explored Philadelphia, and returned to Miami on June 19th.

The family also had plans to enjoy a fancy brunch together in August to celebrate Chavez’s 89th birthday. It pains Rodriguez to know that instead, John will have to say goodbye to his “Dos Elenas.” The family’s hope is that John will come to continue to know them as his angels.

Rodriguez, a Miami-based attorney with Therrel Baisden, said that had his mother survived, she would be advocating for justice. He said she would want to hold responsible parties accountable to ensure that another tragedy like this never hurts another family again.

Attorney Pablo Rodriguez said that after watching a video of the Surfside building collapse he was convinced search-and-rescue teams will not find his 64-year-old mother, Elena Blasser, and his 88-year-old grandmother, Elena Chavez, alive.

On Tuesday, he was still learning about what preceded the tragedy that robbed so many of time with their loved ones. Like the creaking noise his mother heard, there were surely many details residents and officials ignored. The investigations to determine the cause of the collapse will likely take years.

Residents who survived said the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association’s leadership was unstable and dysfunctional. A troubling 2018 report shows an engineer reported there were red flags that the association needed to take care of. A letter the association president sent to residents in April said the issues had worsened over time. The cost had ballooned from more than $9 million to more than $15 million.

Town officials said the building was in the process of recertification, which is required every 40 years. The board was not pressed for time in 2018, but the scrutiny of the recertification process came with deadlines. There was an ongoing project on the roof.

Rodriguez said that to expect condo associations’ board members to self-govern on life-critical maintenance issues without subject-matter expertise is nonsensical. He said there is a need for inspection reform to enforce more rigorous oversight and timely compliance.

“They don’t even realize these are life-critical maintenance issues. If you are not in construction, you don’t understand the severity of what they are actually telling you,” he said. “There needs to be some kind of official oversight — not just for me and my mom and my grandmother, but for every family that is struggling through this, and for other families that are not going through this, so they don’t have to.”

Condominium law experts agree. Florida legislators said they are ready to make changes as it relates to state and federal law. Rodriguez said he hopes that will be the legacy his son’s grandmother and great-grandmother leave behind.

Complete coverage

Coverage on Wednesday

Search and rescue personnel work atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building, where scores of people remain missing after it partially collapsed the week before, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Coverage on Tuesday

Search and rescue workers carry equipment onto the rubble of an oceanfront condo building that collapsed the week before, with many dead and unaccounted for, in Surfside, Fla., Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Coverage on Monday

A rescue worker pauses to look up at what remains of the Champlain Towers South residential building, Monday, June 28, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Coverage on Sunday

Crews work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Coverage on Saturday

Rescue workers search the rubble of the Champlain Towers South condominium, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in the Surfside area of Miami. The building partially collapsed on Thursday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Coverage on Friday

Search and rescue workers go through rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside, Fla., section of Miami, Friday, June 25, 2021. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday. The teams continue to work at the site hoping to detect any sounds coming from survivors. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Coverage on Thursday

FILE - In this June 24, 2021, file photo, rescue workers remove a body from the rubble where a wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed in the Surfside area of Miami. Search and rescue teams from Miami-Dade have been described as among the best and most experienced in the world. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.