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'We Are Here To Stay.' Community Honors And Grieves Surfside Victims, One Month After Collapse

People came to mourn on July 2, 2021, for loved ones who died in the Champlain Towers South building collapse.
Verónica Zaragovia
People came to mourn on July 2, 2021, for loved ones who died in the Champlain Towers South building collapse.

WLRN has spent the past few weeks in Surfside speaking to folks who lost loved ones in the catastrophe, people who rushed to help in the aftermath or who’ve played a role in helping the community grieve.

Loli Ripes On Her Friend And Collapse Victim Hilda Noriega

“She was a very cheerful person. She was always smiling," Ripes said. "I take that with me in my heart — her smile.” Ripes said she would see her friend, but then after a pause, added that they didn’t do it as frequently as they would have wanted to.

Noriega would invite Ripes over to her apartment, unit 602.

“She always wanted me to be there because I loved the view from the balcony of the beach,” said Ripes, who struggled to get the words out because of her grief. “Only time will lessen the pain a bit, but it’s very sad.”

Noriega was the mother of Carlos Noriega, the police chief of the North Bay Village Police Department.
Leo Morejon, Champlain Towers South Valet Driver, And Condo Owner Ivette Birba

At the memorial on the town's tennis court fence, facing Harding Avenue, Leo Morejon bumped into condo owner Ivette Birba, who didn't live in her unit permanently. It was on the second floor, located in the portion of the building that didn't collapse but was brought down with explosives.

She and her husband considered going to the Champlain Towers South the day before it collapsed.

"It was my husband's birthday but we had a sick puppy and he said we should stay home and just keep an eye on the dog," she said. "We had the apartment for almost 20 years so we knew a lot of people."

Morejon said it was emotional to see the photos posted on the tennis court fence.

“A good friend of mine worked in unit 412," he told Birba in Spanish. "His daughter had come to visit from Canada. She rarely came to visit, maybe once or twice a year with a friend. A weekend would have been even worse, because there would have been more people in the building.”

Morejon also fondly remembered Hilda Noriega and also Edgar Gonzalez who had a big dog.

“One of the [former] residents sent me a message about the vigil and I came to see others from the building. A lot of people lost family and they don’t want to come here anymore," he said.

'We Are Here To Stay.' Community Honors And Grieves Surfside Victims, One Month After Collapse

Lilly Gracia On Friend And Victim Manuel “Manny” Lafont

The night of June 23, Adriana Lafont picked up her two kids, Mia, 13, and Santi, 10, some hours before the building would eventually collapse in the early hours of June 24.

Lafont grew up in Houston. Lilly Gracia said she had spoken to him the night before the collapse. His apartment on the eighth floor faced the ocean. He coached Santi's baseball team and Mia's basketball team.

“We’re devastated,” Gracia said. “We have many friends in [the Champlain Towers South]. It’s a whole community from Puerto Rico, close friends that are missing.”

She held out a photo of Lafont as she stood outside of the Surfside Community Center, which at one point served as a point for the distribution of donations and a place where victims and survivors of the collapse took shelter. The night of the collapse, Manny Lafont had a special guest staying with him — his 21-year-old godson, Andreas Giannitsopolous, who was a student at Vanderbilt University.

In a text message, Gracia sent a video of Lafont dancing at a get together. "This is our Manny. Always the happiest guy in the room!"

Dvir Dimri, Volunteer From Israel With Rescuers Without Borders (SSF)

Dvir Dimri received short notice before heading to Surfside.

"I got the phone calls to my work, and they told me four hours from now you have a flight. You have to go to the airport to do a COVID test, come back to your home, and then get stuff like crazy, and run to the airport again and fly to here," Dimri said.

Upon arriving Dimri said he and fellow volunteers went to a synagogue, prayed and then went to the site of the collapse.

"We're here for work, this is not a vacation," he said.

On the day he spoke with WLRN, on June 28, a body was found. At that point, the standing portion of the building hadn't been detonated yet.

"Unfortunately the situation is a little bit difficult because the other part of the building might collapse, so the place where we would like to go more, we can't go there," Dimri said at the time.

He said the decision to come for a week to Surfside had nothing to do with the Jewish population.

"Nope. We are here because we want to save a life," said Dimri. "I would like to send condolences to the families that lost their loved ones. We send them a huge hug and we are here for them."

'We Are Here To Stay.' Community Honors And Grieves Surfside Victims, One Month After Collapse

Joe Zevuloni, Founder Of Strong for Surfside

On June 24, the day of the collapse, Zevuloni and volunteers operated out of the Surfside Community Center to prepare and give meals for first responders.

"We anticipated thousands of people coming here to this town," said Zevuloni at a July15 vigil. "We started with 30 volunteers from [fellow volunteer organization] Yedidim. We put out a link, within two days we had over 500 volunteers that came. Within four days we had over 1,000 that signed up. We started a field kitchen. We pumped out more than 3,000 hot meals for responders, families. That center became a sanctuary, became a home away from home."

At the center, victims and their family members gathered at the start of the catastrophe for shelter, to pick up donations, or to speak with authorities for information on missing persons.

After they had to leave the community center, Strong for Surfside did its volunteer work out of the kitchens of a few local restaurants.

"We had drivers bringing from the kosher restaurants here and giving them out to responders," said Zevuloni. "The thing is, it's not about meals. When the families come to the center, we know what they like to eat already. This guy likes a pastrami sandwich, this woman is a vegetarian. They feel so good that we know know them. 'Hey, I got your pastrami here, it's ready!' 'Hey, I got your vegan dish, it's ready!' Look, I got goosebumps when I'm telling you this. They shared stories with us, they told us about their loved ones."

"We want to assure the families — the message that I want to leave here with everyone today — we want to assure the families that we are here for them," Zevuloni said during the vigil. "Each and every one of us. We are here to stay."
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'We Are Here To Stay.' Community Honors And Grieves Surfside Victims, One Month After Collapse

Verónica Zaragovia