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.
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.
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.
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