SURFSIDE, Fla. – Surfside Detective Diana Leon was on call in the early morning when the Champlain Towers South partially collapsed in Surfside.
“That moment, I had wished I was a firefighter. I wanted to be on the pile. I wanted to be helping,” she said through tears. “In the beginning, we really thought and hoped that we would find a lot more.”
While the public saw some of the work of first responders performing searches and rescues, Leon would have one of the most crucial and grueling jobs behind the scenes: Talking to families and making the official list of who was missing.
“Every day it dwindled from the list of missing to the list of recovered,” she said.
Leon was the sole Surfside officer assigned to the Miami Dade police homicide unit. When a body was identified, the work did not stop.
“If we go home, that means the family is waiting,” she said.
On several occasions, Leon said she joined detectives to tell next of kin that their loved one had died. To her, victims weren’t just statistics in a case.
“I had every name of every victim memorized,” Leon said. “They are a family that lost three generations. A mom who lost her son and her husband, a father who lost his daughter.”
One year later, the reminders of the people who perished in the collapse are everywhere. Leon keeps a portrait of one of the youngest victims on her desk and has an artist working on a flower tattoo on her forearm.
Eventually, the ink will show 98 wildflowers: One for every person who died. Leon said she knows most families don’t know who she is. But she is grateful to be part of the work to help in any way.
Peer support counseling and a station service dog named Mike have helped some officers like Leon deal with the trauma of their work.
”I’m so thankful that I can still go home to my kids and my husband and my parents and my brother. Some people can’t,” she said.
Graphic: The aftermath of the collapse