‘Still having nightmares’: Surfside building collapse left lasting trauma

Families mark anniversary of Champlain Towers South collapse

SURFSIDE, Fla. – For a man who is grieving the loss of his mother and grandmother, the first anniversary on Friday of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside will be a somber day of reflection.

Pablo Rodriguez’s 64-year-old mother, Elena Blasser, lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the 11th floor. She had views of the ocean and the pool. His 87-year-old grandmother, Elena Chavez, was visiting that night.

The family’s matriarchs were so close they were known as “Las Dos Elenas.” Rescue and recovery crews searched through pancaked concrete. They found Blasser’s remains on July 5 and Chavez on July 6.

They waited for more than two weeks.

“We are still struggling,” he said adding, “They were always there with my son ... He is still sad; he talks about them often.”

During the day, Rodriguez said a melancholy grips simple moments of joy as he makes new memories with his son. At night, Rodriguez said he struggles to think about their last minutes in the condo.

“I am still having nightmares,” he said. “I will wake up in the middle of the night with very vivid movie-like scenes. I just wake up crying and that is still happening ... I lost my grandfather. I lost my dad to cancer. I can deal with loss when it is something natural, but something unnatural like this just stays with you ... This wasn’t a tornado. This wasn’t a hurricane. It is just that they went to sleep, the building fell, and that is the hardest part to try and understand.”

Rodriguez, an estate planning attorney with Therrel Baisden, has been determined to channel his pain into advocacy.

Blasser, he said, was not the type of person who watched injustice silently. If she was alive, he said, she would be pushing to find out who is to blame for the collapse and how to prevent another tragedy.

His work so far has paid off at the state level. State lawmakers passed legislation to require more frequent inspections for buildings over three stories tall and to mandate condo boards to distribute inspection report findings to owners. The new law also requires building associations to set aside reserve funds to cover future repairs.

“I think she should be happy something was done from preventing this from occurring again, from having another family having to go through what we are all going through,” Rodriguez said about Blasser.

At the federal level, he said there is still a lot to be done.

“We have a lot of coastline in the United States and these maintenance issues and condo boards, in particular, are not limited to Florida,” Rodriguez said.

The families of the victims are still waiting for the results of an investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a non-regulatory federal agency of the Department of Commerce.

Rodriguez wants both reforms and accountability.

“I think with certain individuals it rises to the level of criminal negligence,” Rodriguez said.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office is also awaiting NIST’s findings on the actual cause to determine criminal liability.

“The hope I have on the accountability front at this point, honestly, is that the federal government finds out the causes and at least hopefully we can address them with further reforms to prevent more scenarios like this from playing out.”

Read the complete SAO statement:

“The State Attorney’s Office has been involved in the investigation of the June 24, 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium since the collapse occurred. We are awaiting NIST’s findings as to the actual cause of the collapse as a crucial element in determining potential criminal liability.

“The standard for charging an individual with a criminal offense is believing that we have sufficient proof to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt since a conviction in criminal court requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. NIST’s investigation as to the actual cause of the collapse is crucial in making such a determination.”

Graphic: Finding the 98 victims

About the Author:

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."