SURFSIDE, Fla. – When the body of 4-year-old Emma Guara was pulled from the rubble of last month's Florida condominium collapse, she was wearing the silver necklace her mother recently gave her, the pendant shaped like half a heart and inscribed “Little Sis.”
When firefighters found her 11-year-old sister, Lucia Guara, she was not wearing her near-matching necklace, the pendant shaped like the other half of the heart and inscribed “Big Sis.” Lucia had developed an allergic reaction and had temporarily stopped wearing hers, said their aunt, Digna Rodriguez.
"We would like to get that necklace back," Rodriguez said. "They loved those necklaces.”
The girls' parents, Anaely Rodriguez and Marcus Guara, also died in the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South that killed at least 95 people and left 14 unaccounted for. They were among the first recovered from the rubble. The girls were buried in the same coffin last week, Emma wearing her necklace.
As they search through tons of broken concrete and twisted rebar for more remains, authorities are also trying to recover keepsakes for families that have lost relatives and for surviving residents of the building. They have set up a database for people to upload information about missing property.
Each time crews find personal possessions, they take photos and log the location using GPS. They have made a grid of the pile, knowing approximately where each family's condo unit should be. Detectives place the objects into a bin. They are taken to an area to be cataloged and sealed in bags. Then they are placed in a locked and guarded cargo container for later shipment to a warehouse.
For the possessions of the deceased, there will be an “estate process” to claim items to make sure they get to the proper heir, Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez said.
Miami-Dade police Sgt. Danny Murillo, a leader of the operation, said the process had to be designed through “trial and error” because the collapse of a residential tower “is not your everyday event.” He said it can be emotional when an item like a child's toy is found.
“We are all human,” he said.
Rachel Spiegel, who lost her 66-year-old mother, Judy Spiegel, in the collapse, hopes the crews will find her family’s mementos. Her mother's remains were recovered Friday.
“All my parents’ stuff over a lifetime is gone,” Rachel Spiegel said. “Their wedding album is gone. My dad’s wine collection is gone, all my mom’s jewelry, all my mom’s clothes, the dress she wore at my wedding that I wanted to wear one day. All of their belongings are gone. We have nothing.”
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, who has visited the site repeatedly since the collapse, said crews are finding items as small as rings and jewelry in the rubble.
“The work is so delicate that we’re even finding unbroken wine bottles,” Burkett said. He said because of the information families have provided, search teams often know what to look for in specific parts of the pile. He held up a photo of a ring that was found in the wreckage where searchers believed it would be.
“They’re expecting to find these things. And in this case, they did," Burkett said.
Ramirez said special consideration is being taken for religious property. Rabbis have toured the processing area to ensure that religious artifacts are properly stored and handled with care. He said some of the items have enormous significance.
“It could be the smallest little thing that to a common person it just looks like a little container. It really means generations. It’s very spiritual, and I’m just so impressed. Our officers are learning so much about culture," he said. "There are just so many dynamics with the sadness and the sorrow.”
Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.