Surfside building collapse: Man uses grandmother’s values to deal with grief

Friday marks the anniversary of the Champlain Towers South collapse that killed 98 people

Michael Noriega said he and his family are still grappling with grief. His grandmother Hilda Noriega was among the 98 who died after the Champlain Towers South collapsed in Surfside.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Michael Noriega said he is still grappling with grief. Hilda Noriega, who left Cuba in 1960, had two children, and he is one of her three grandchildren.

The 92-year-old matriarch had lived at Champlain Towers South in Surfside for two decades. He remembers drinking Cuban coffee with her on the balcony and their talks.

His grandmother was a fervent Catholic and had an active social life.

“She truly lived for her faith, her family and her friends. She just was so full of love,” he said adding, “It still hurts. It’s hard to believe that it has even been one year.”

On June 24, 2021, the Noriega family arrived to find part of the building where she lived had turned into piles of concrete and residents’ belongings.

“One of the first things that we saw was her patio furniture on top of the rubble because she lived on the sixth floor ... it just hit me so hard ... just reminiscing on all the conversations we’d have after lunch and it was crushing,” Michael Noriega said.

The family was also able to recover objects that made them feel like she was sending them a message in spirit.

“We had found a birthday card given to my grandma by her friends in her prayer group that first night. My father of all people found it,” Michael Noriega said.

Mike Noriega shows a birthday card, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Surfside, Fla., relatives sent to his grandmother, Hilda Noriega, two weeks ago for her 92nd birthday. Hilda Noriega lives on the sixth floor of the Miami building that collapsed. (AP Photo/Joshua Goodman) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The family also recovered a few family photos and a written prayer. Detectives also gave him a brown bag with her six rosaries.

“It was almost like, ‘Oh my God! This is almost a full-circle moment. This is closure’ That’s everything that my grandma lived for.”

The very values his grandmother taught him are the ones that are helping him to get through the grief, Michael Noriega said.

“My three weapons have been prayer, it has been praise, and it has been people, and what I mean by that is that prayer isn’t something that should be a last resort. It should be the first response and so I’ve gone to God every single day with my grief.”

Michael Noriega said he is finding ways to honor her memory.

“My grandmother has changed the mission of my life. I have not been able to live life as usual. My mission in life has been to carry her legacy forward ... We are going to go through a broken heart but it doesn’t have to break your spirit.”

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Graphic: The aftermath of the collapse

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.