Lives lost in Surfside building collapse: Grandson honors dynamic duo

Maria and Gonzalo Torre owned James Hotel, were the inspiration behind El Mago Cigars

MIAMI – The colorful, decorated walls at the James Hotel speak for themselves, but Nick Fusco was recently the one doing the talking.

“That is my grandpa,” Fusco said as noon struck and a clock overhead played music. “That’s very him. Eclectic.”

Every colorful fish and eccentric, bright painting on the hotel walls was carefully chosen by his grandfather, Gonzalo Torre, a Cuban immigrant, who owned and operated the James Hotel with his wife, Maria for 32 years.

Their love story, begins in Czechoslovakia in the 1960′s, with Gonzalo and Maria moving there from Cuba, before also living in Canada and Venezuela. Finally, the couple would end up in Miami Beach.

They later moved into the Champlain Towers South in Surfside where they died last June.

“There’s a lot of great memories there,” Fusco said.

The anniversary of the 12-story building’s collapse is Friday and the families of the 98 victims are still grieving.

“You know people say that they feel like a piece of their heart was ripped out,” Fusco said adding, “And you don’t really understand what that means until you feel it. Like it’s a literal feeling. And that’s what I felt that day.”

As the family mourned them both, Fusco conjured up a Christmas present for his mother. He gifted her cigars, with a specialized box honoring his grandparents.

“I thought of cigars because my mom was here a lot and he was always smoking a cigar here,” Fusco said. “He had a large collection of pipes at his house.”

His mom loved the idea so much that she urged him to share it with others and that’s how El Mago Cigars was born.

“El Mago” is Spanish for The Wizard, but the name really comes directly from Maria and Gonzalo. It’s a combination of the first two letters of their names.

Every detail on the box is in loving memory of them both.

“In the middle, you’ve got a picture of my grandparents when they were in their 20s in Cuba,” Fusco said pointing to the box’s emblem. “And in the back, we put a picture of [the hotel].”

On the back of the box, are his grandmother’s passport stamps, showing her long journey to get to America.

The cigar flavors were made with his grandfather’s taste in mind.

“I blended this cigar specifically to what I knew he liked—what flavors, what aromas he liked,” Fusco said.

Cigars are what sparked a strong bond between Nick and his grandfather too.

“I guess our best bonding times is when we would have lunch and smoke a cigar.”

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About the Author:

Eden Checkol co-anchors Local 10's 10 p.m. weeknight newscast on WSFL and also reports on WPLG newscasts. She’s a Minnesota native who is thrilled to leave the snow behind and call South Florida home.