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Nine months after the Surfside collapse, a judge and a new mayor try charting a path forward

Family members hold vigil last month for the deceased victims and people who are missing from the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla.
Tayfun Coskun
/
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Family members hold vigil last month for the deceased victims and people who are missing from the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla.

Over the nine months since the Champlain Towers South building collapsed in Surfside, tension has grown between those who lost their homes and those who lost their loved ones. Now a judge in Miami and newly elected officials in Surfside are charting a path forward.

No matter how many times the stories of the June 24 disaster get told, they don’t get easier to hear.

"Everybody here welled up, including the court," said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who got emotional during a court hearing on March 30. "It's very difficult to hear these tragic stories."

By the end of the hearing, Hanzman would rule on a proposed settlement for the homeowners who lost their condos in the collapse — $83 million that would come from insurance payouts and the upcoming sale of the beachfront property.

Some at the hearing spoke against getting blamed for the 40-year-old building collapsing.

"Everybody that lost somebody — you have to understand it was not the owners' fault. We were just unit owners," said Randy Rose, who was a unit owner but didn't live in the building. "If whoever invited you into the building ever thought our building was unsafe, they would have never invited you in the building."

Others made a case for more money, or for not getting less, like Raysa Rodriguez.

"I live with this every night when I go to sleep, where I wake up a lady saying, 'Please help me. Please help me. Don't leave me like this,' " said Rodriguez, who owned unit 907. She pleaded with the judge to approve the $83 million, and no less. "I loved that building. I lived there for 18 years and I am so sorry for their loss. I am grieving every day for all these people that I loved and I lost."

Victims' families said they don't want the owners to make any profit.

"Our family waited in agony for 13 days until Ilan was recovered on July 7. Ilan was found clenching his driver's license, " said Tallie Naibryf, whose brother Ilan was 21 and visiting the building with his girlfriend for one night. "My brother was an innocent visitor, unaware and uninformed as to the necessary repairs of the structure."

Eileen Rosenberg said money should only go to wrongful death claimants. Her daughter, Malky Weisz, died while visiting her father in the building. Malky Weisz's husband, Benny Weisz, and father, Harry Rosenberg, died, too.

"We cannot equate losing an apartment and furnishings to losing a life," Rosenberg said.

Hanzman listened for hours and acknowledged each person’s pain. Then he announced a decision.

"The reality is a court has to adjudicate issues not based upon feelings, not based upon viewpoints, not based upon emotion," he said.

Hanzman approved the $83 million cap and decided to take out $750,000 from that to cover costs like maintaining the property on Collins Avenue, including an expensive process of removing water, and to help pay attorneys who’ve been working pro bono so far.

He said homeowners will get enough money to start over somewhere, even if not in Surfside or neighboring Miami Beach.

Hanzman said first, the Champlain property needs to sell for no less than $120 million. That’s what the initial bidder, a Dubai-based developer, offered. The land could go for more at an auction next month.

"Until and unless that happens, it will not be one penny distributed to the condominium owners," he said.

The wrongful death claimants are waiting to learn how much money they'll get.

The evening before Hanzman 's court hearing, Surfside's new mayor, Shlomo Danzinger, led the first town meeting since voters elected him and three new commissioners to office. Only one commissioner who served during the collapse, Nelly Velasquez, was reelected.

Danzinger brought up a top agenda item — a temporary memorial banner that would be hung on a fence by the former Champlain property.

"Something tasteful with the names so people understand what this site represents," he said. "We do welcome your opinions and input on this." 

The mockup currently has a line: “98 people lost their lives on June 24, 2021.”

"I think it would be nicer to write '98 souls, '" said Eileen Rosenberg, who was at this meeting as well as the court hearing the next day. "Of course you can add precious souls, loved souls, missed souls, but definitely souls."

Pablo Langesfeld lost his daughter, Nicole Langesfeld. She died with her husband, Luis Sadovnic.

"Maybe to put our loved ones, human beings, maybe persons, but 'people ' it’s … I don’t think it's the right word," Langesfeld said.

Even these small details are impossibly painful.

Danzinger said the grieving families will be involved in planning a permanent memorial, and the town will plan an event to mark one year since the disaster.

"I want to just congratulate the new mayor," said Dovy Ainsworth, whose parents Itty and Tzvi Ainsworth died in the collapse. "I think your first meeting being about what this city will forever be known by, whether we like it or not, we're the collapse city. I think your first meeting is definitely a step in the right direction."
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Verónica Zaragovia