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Couple changed travel plans to Uruguay before dying in Surfside building collapse

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Bernardo Camou Font and his sister María Inés Camou Font said a change of travel plans caused their 64-year-old sister to die. She was scheduled to return to Montevideo, Uruguay before a section of the 12-story Champlain Towers South collapsed in Miami-Dade County’s town of Surfside.

Search crews digging through a mountain of pancaked concrete found their sister Maria Gabriela Camou Font dead two weeks after the June 24th tragedy. They are still searching for her husband of four decades, Miguel Kaufmann.

While standing at a makeshift memorial on Harding Avenue, Bernardo Camou Font said he had been in tears many times asking himself why this would happen. Her sister and her husband, who visited Miami twice a year, wanted to spend more time with their grandchildren.

“Destiny. Everything conspired ... In Miami, where there are hundreds of thousands of buildings, just their building fell, collapses, that’s unbelievable,” the math professor said.

With the official death toll rising to nearly 100, María Inés Camou Font said it all feels like a horror movie.

“You say, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ Why did their building collapse?”

Through tears, Bernardo Camou Font said, “Gabriela, I know you are really up there. Pray for me ... I am praying that she helps me to exit, to move along, to move forward, and I think she is helping me ... I am feeling more connected now than ever.”

He left his sister a handwritten note at the makeshift memorial. For the Camou Font family, the memory wall is a reminder that they are not alone in their grief.

Molly MacDonald, with Mercy Chefs, hangs a sign on behalf of Princeton Church at a makeshift memorial remembering the victims of the nearby collapsed Champlain Towers South building, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Mercy Chefs has set up a mobile kitchen to feed search and rescue teams working at the site three meals a day. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The 136-unit Champlain Towers South was built in 1981. After engineers reported in 2018 that the building had “major structural damage,” the building association reported Rosendo “Ross” Prieto, the former town’s chief building official, had reviewed the report and determined it was in “very good shape.”

About two months before the collapse, the president of the association informed residents the damage reported in 2018 had worsened and the cost of repairing it had ballooned and there was a proposal for a $15 million special assessment.

“A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by,” Jean Wodnicki, the condo association president, wrote.

On the morning of the tragedy, a 911 caller said there was a group who thought the roof had collapsed when they ran out of their apartments and got trapped in the parking garage. They didn’t know the residents of the northern section were trapped in a compact mountain of pancaked concrete.

“We are going back up to our apartments but some of the hallways are blocked and there is water coming in through to the bottom, through the garage,” the 911 caller said.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue personnel evacuated survivors from the balconies of what was left standing of the building. The search-and-rescue operation went on day and night despite intermittent storms and spontaneous fires. Families waited in anguish. They found bodies and human remains.

Witnesses at the epicenter of sorrow saw a Miami veteran firefighter held his little girl after Florida Task Force 2 Miami pulled her body out of the rubble. Seven-year-old Stella Cattarossi died with her mother, aunt, and maternal grandparents. Many other families mourned more than one relative.

On the Fourth of July, while other areas of Miami-Dade had fireworks displays, engineers monitored the demolition of the Champlain Towers South ruins. This sped up the search-and-recovery mission that followed after thunderstorms that stemmed from Tropical Storm Elsa.

There were more than 14,000 tons of concrete and metal removed from the site. Maggie Castro, a firefighter and paramedic, is a spokeswoman for MDFR. On Wednesday, she said the rain continues to slow down the recovery operation.

“The rubble that’s being removed now is from the building we purposely collapsed days after the event,” Castro said. “Right now, the biggest issue is the weather. We have a lot of water accumulation so we’re attempting to de-water the area.”

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About the Authors:

Reporter Rosh Lowe is covering the Surfside building collapse and other news for Local 10 News.

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.