'We are waiting for you': An agonising vigil for families of Florida condo collapse victims

SURFSIDE, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) – All around Mrs Magaly Ramsey a chorus of newly familiar strangers were shouting out the names of their loved ones, hoping their voices would penetrate the looming pile of debris. These were the people Mrs Ramsey had spent long days with, waiting for any news of their relatives buried under the fallen building.

“I love you,” they screamed over the rubble. “Please come out of there.” “We are waiting for you.” But Mrs Ramsey did not shout the name of her missing 80-year-old mother.

As soon as rescue officials let her get close to the site of the tragedy Monday afternoon, she decided that her mother could not be alive.

Up close, the rubble pile looked like a sand dune.

“I’m a very logical, tough woman,” Mrs Ramsey said. Instead of shouting, she said, she asked questions of a rescue official nearby. Can a body just disintegrate?

The answer, Mrs Ramsey recalled in an interview, was “yes”. The death toll rose by one, to 12, on Tuesday at Champlain Towers South in Surfside, where the floors in a section of the 13-story building fell on top of one another early Thursday morning.

Almost 150 people, including Mrs Ramsey’s mother, Magaly Delgado, are still classified as missing.

The round-the-clock rescue operation now involves 210 workers scouring the giant mound at any given time. In the days since the collapse, crews had moved 1.4 million kg (3 million pounds) of concrete off the pile, Chief Alan R. Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said.

But for most of the families who have spent their days congregated in a government-sponsored reunification centre, that progress has been unsatisfying.

Without the news they are most desperate to hear, they have been left no choice but to navigate an ugly and liminal place where mourning can feel both necessary and premature.

Miami-Dade County officials have declined to release a list of names of the dozens who remain unaccounted for. At twice-daily news conferences, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County reiterates that the numbers are fluid.

When a family member or friend calls the county’s hotline to report someone who might be missing, state and local authorities pursue leads, review them and open a case.

“We have people calling in from everywhere with hunches,” Ms Levine Cava said.

The White House announced Tuesday that President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are scheduled to travel to Florida on Thursday to tour the site of the building collapse and meet with families.

The round-the-clock rescue operation now involves 210 workers scouring the giant mound at any given time. PHOTO: REUTERS

The long wait for answers ended for a few families late Monday, when authorities identified Mr Frank Kleiman, 55, as well as Mr Michael David Altman, 50, and Mr Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, as among the dead.

Mr Kleiman, known to friends as Frankie, lived on the seventh floor with his new wife, Ana Ortiz, and stepson, Luis Bermudez, who have also been confirmed dead.

Mr Alex Garcia, 55, helped set Mr Kleiman up on a blind date with Ortiz about a dozen years ago. “He always kept his chin up. He wasn’t judgmental. He was the kind of guy you could share anything with,” said Mr Garcia, who attended the same high school as Kleiman.

“He was one of my best friends, the best man in my wedding and we travelled together.” They had just seen each other on Father’s Day.

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Mr Guara, who lived in Unit 802 with his wife, Ana, and their two daughters, Lucia and Emma, all of whom remain missing, was remembered Tuesday as a kind and generous man, a godfather to his close friend’s twin 9-year-old boys and a fan of hard rock music.

Mr Jose Dezarraga, who grew up with Mr Guara, said much of their childhood was spent outdoors, running and swimming or biking and playing soccer. The two also bonded over a shared love of the rock band Kiss.

“His mom took us to our first Kiss concert and we went again to see them in Tampa two years ago,” Mr Dezarraga, 53, said. They spent last Christmas together, and Mr Guara gave bikes to the twins.

“I had just talked to him about two weeks ago,” he said. “What I did not know at the time is he and another friend were planning a surprise visit.”

There were further indications this week that the next step – determining who or what should be blamed for the disaster – was getting underway.

The partially collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, is seen on June 29, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

On Monday, the state attorney for Miami-Dade County, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, announced that she would ask a grand jury to examine the collapse, though the jury has yet to be empanelled. Ms Levine Cava pledged her support for such an investigation in a news conference Tuesday.

In addition, a letter that the president of the condominium association wrote to residents in April publicly surfaced, revealing deep concerns about the building’s condition less than three months before it gave way.

Mr Ross Prieto, the former Surfside building official who had been apprised of problems at the Champlain Towers three years ago, is now on leave from his current job as a contractor with the nearby city of Doral, according to city officials there.

More intimate calculations were being made closer to the site. Mrs Ramsey, a marketing executive who grew up in South Florida, said there was another reason she had not shouted her mother’s name when she visited the pile Monday afternoon: Her mother, she said, “did not like to make a scene”.

Ms Magaly Delgado had spent decades as Magaly Alfonso, but 12 years ago she divorced her long-time husband and took her maiden name back. Ms Delgado had initiated the break-up, her daughter said.

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“She just felt like she didn’t want any ties, and wanted to be an independent woman, and it wasn’t working out for her, so she split things up.” Ms Delgado was like that. She had left Cuba in the early 1960s, fearing she would speak out against the revolution, and face retribution.

In the United States, she taught herself English, which she spoke imperfectly but with relish.

After the divorce, she moved into Champlain Towers South, Unit 911. It was a sumptuously appointed place with recessed lighting, graciously curved walls and a set of delicate Lladro porcelain figurines that she adored.

Ms Delgado was a fan of Queen Elizabeth, a stickler for etiquette and not always an easy person to get along with. “She was a hardheaded woman,” Mrs Ramsey said.

But in the past few years, after some time apart, she had grown close to her daughter again, and had taken to driving her Lincoln sedan 90 minutes north to the home of Mrs Ramsey and her husband in Jupiter, typically showing up impeccably turned out in Anne Klein or Ralph Lauren.

Mrs Ramsey was in Orlando for a business conference with her husband early Thursday morning when they learned that Champlain Towers South had fallen.

They were almost certain Ms Delgado had been sleeping at home: She had refused to be vaccinated for Covid-19 after having bad reactions to other medicines (“A hardheaded woman,” Mrs Ramsey repeated) and was still trying to stay home as much as possible to avoid infection.

A memorial featuring photos of people thought lost after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida. PHOTO: AFP

The Ramseys immediately raced to Surfside, listening to the news on the four-hour ride. Mrs  Ramsey’s father had died of Covid-19 in August. She had watched him fade through a glass partition, gasping for air. She did not have a chance to hold him.

When the couple arrived at the reunification centre, they discovered that Delgado was not yet on the list of the missing. They gave officials her information. Mrs Ramsey had the insides of her cheeks swabbed to provide a DNA sample. And they waited.

They have been waiting ever since, at first making the long commute to the site of the tragedy from Jupiter, and more recently staying in a donated apartment closer by.

Mrs Ramsey said that other family members were complaining about the pace of recovery, but that she had grown to appreciate the enormousness of their task. She had been praying every day, she said, but she is no longer praying that her mother is alive.

She is praying that the rain – which has plagued the rescue crews all week – might let up. And she is praying that her mother’s body might be found whole.

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