The final victim of the condo building collapse in Florida has been identified, a relative said Monday, more than a month after the middle-of-the-night catastrophe that ultimately claimed 98 lives and became the largest non-hurricane related emergency response in state history.
Estelle Hedaya, an outgoing 54-year-old with a love of travel, was the last to be identified, ending what her relatives described as a torturous four-week wait. Her younger brother, Ikey Hedaya, confirmed the news to The Associated Press. A funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.
It comes just days after rescuers officially concluded the painstaking and emotionally heavy task of removing layers of dangerous debris and pulling out dozens of bodies.
“She always mentioned God anytime she was struggling with anything,” he said, adding he was drawing strength from God, just as he’d seen his sister do in troubling times.
The site of the June 24 collapse at the oceanside Champlain Towers South has been mostly swept flat, the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists and rabbis are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, seeking to recover any additional remains and personal items.
In the end, crews found no evidence that anyone who was found dead had survived the initial collapse, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky has said.
Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms. They went through more than 14,000 tons (13,000 metric tonnes) of broken concrete and rebar before finally declaring the mission complete.
“For the past 33 days they have searched the rubble as if they were searching for one of their own," Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said during a news conference Monday.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search-and-rescue team pulled away from the site Friday in a convoy of firetrucks and other vehicles. Officials saluted their bravery, saying they had worked 12-hour shifts while camping out at the site and also dealing with the heavy emotional burden.
The tragedy that befell the tiny town of Surfside prompted an outpouring of love from far and wide where locals donated their homes and apartments to victims, children colored cards for rescuers, piles and piles of food were donated and tens of millions of dollars raised for the victims.
The mayor expressed hope that those kindnesses would be “a powerful and lasting reminder of how deeply connected we truly are in the best of times and in the worst of times.”
The dead included members of the area’s large Orthodox Jewish community, the sister of Paraguay’s first lady, her family and their nanny, along with an entire family of four that included a local salesman, his wife and their two young daughters, 4 and 11, who were buried in the same coffin.
Linda March, a 58 year-old attorney and fellow former New Yorker, was close friends with Hedaya. Oddly the two were the last three victims to be identified, along with 24-year-old Anastasia Gromova of Canada.
Leah Sutton, who knew Hedaya since birth and considered herself a second mother to her, said she and March were both “forces to be reckoned with.”
“My two beautiful amazing fearless friends saved for last, have to believe there was a reason for them to be last,” she said Monday. “Estelle's love of God was unbelievable and unwavering.”
Meanwhile, it's unclear what will happen at the collapse site. A judge presiding over several lawsuits filed in the collapse aftermath wants the property sold at market rates, which would bring in an estimated $100 million or more. Some condo owners want to rebuild, and others say a memorial should be erected to remember the dead.
Associated Press writer David Fischer contributed from Miami