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Surfside building collapse: Victims’ relatives react to judge allowing process to sell property

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Martin Lagesfeld is grieving the loss of his 26-year-old sister and his 28-year-old brother-in-law. Crews recovered their remains a week ago. On Wednesday, he was in disbelief when he learned a judge approved the sale of the property where so many perished.

Nicole Lagesfeld and Luis Sadovnic had lived at Champlain Towers South’s unit 804 in Surfside. Their families were outraged when Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman approved the sale of the land for commercial use.

The search and recovery operation continued at the site of the former 12-story building, at 8777 Collins Ave., when Hanzman ordered that the selling process begin. With the official death toll rising to nearly 100 victims, several families said the oceanside property where the June 24th tragedy happened should be a memorial.

“Some developer could come here and build a building on top of this within a few months and everything is forgotten,” Lagesfeld, 23, said Wednesday.

University of Miami law graduate, and her husband, Luis Sadovnic, lived in apartment 804 of the Surfside condominium complex. Andrew Dawson, the law school’s vice dean for academic affairs, taught Langesfeld for two semesters in 2018. “She was really bright, but she was also just a bright presence in the classroom because she brought joy to it.” The couple met as students at the University of Florida. Their bodies were recovered on Wednesday, July 7. (Facebook/Nicole Langesfeld)

A developer could still be required to build a memorial in part of the property. Court records indicate the property is valued at $100-$110 million, The Associated Press reported. For nearly a month, the property has been Miami-Dade County’s epicenter of despair.

“This is obviously a case where there’s no amount of money that could possibly be available to compensate these families for their suffering and loss,” Hanzman said.

Hanzman added “there’s no money in the world” that can pay for the damages caused, but “the law places value on claims, and these claims are going to have to be valued.”

Hanzman also said the aggregate value of the claims that the law will place on them is going to far exceed all amounts available for recovery, both by way of insurance proceeds, assets, and third-party claims.

“We aren’t a case number,” Lagesfeld said. “We lost humans. We lost family members. Loved ones.”

Leo Soto, whose high school friend Nicole Langesfeld was killed in Surfside along with her husband Luis Sadovnic, adjusts pictures at the makeshift memorial he began in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Attorney Michael Goldberg, the court-appointed receiver who is tasked with disbursing insurance payments, told The Associated Press that Hanzman was exploring a potential sale contingent on making sure the proceeds benefit the victims.

“It feels like every day there is a new roadblock, but this one is inhumane,” Lagesfeld said about the judge’s decision.

The 136-unit condominium 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.

Hanzman also ordered the return of $2.4 million in payments residents had made towards the $15 million needed in special assessments to begin the repairs of the building.

Crews work in the rubble of the demolished section of the Champlain Towers South building, as removal and recovery work continues at the site of the partially collapsed condo building, on Monday, July 12, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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 saw a Miami veteran firefighter hold 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.

A worker waits to load his truck with debris from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building, as removal and recovery work continues at the site of the partially collapsed condo building, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

There have been tens of thousands 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.”

The ramifications of the tragedy are far from over.

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The wife of a doctor whose body has yet to be recovered says that building a memorial at the site only cause her more pain and suffering.
The wife of a doctor whose body has yet to be recovered says that building a memorial at the site only cause her more pain and suffering.

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.