Skip to main Content
Nation/World

‘Everybody in Miami knows somebody from that building’

  • Author: Linda Robertson, The Miami Herald
  • Updated: July 4
  • Published July 4

Curious beachgoers Daniela Valido, left, Daphnie Lucero, center, and Rebeca Salazal, right, stop to visit the makeshift memorial south of the site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South as Miami-Dade Police placed a perimeter about one block south and two blocks north, restricting any foot traffic near the site, on Sunday, July 4, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

MIAMI — Inside the “condo of the abuelas,” a walk down any hallway was a feast for the senses. The smells of frying plantains, baking challah bread and roasting brisket mingled with the sounds of Willy Chirino’s salsa hits and telenovela actors’ operatic dialogue.

On the 12 floors of Champlain Towers South, there were cutthroat card games, Shabbat dinners, family reunions, holiday celebrations. Grandchildren splashed in the swimming pool while their grandparents napped in chaise lounges. Sunrise strolls on the beach preceded Cuban coffee on balconies bathed in ocean breezes. People conversed in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, French, Russian and Spanish. On any elevator ride, it was a medley of “Shalom,” “Oi, tudo bem?” “Rad tebya videt” or “Como estas?” (Hebrew, Portugese, Russian, Spanish).

Then, around 1:30 a.m. on June 24, as most tenants slept, the building groaned and creaked like a sick old man in his death throes. Insomniacs fearing an earthquake scrambled down stairwells and escaped, but 55 of 136 units were sheared away as if by a carving knife. Within seconds, the beehive of life was buried beneath tons of rubble.

The heart and soul of the small town of Surfside, silenced. The residents who survived or were lucky not to be home number 188. As of midday Sunday, the toll stands at 24 dead and 121 unaccounted for — a classification that extends a strand of hope.

“We are praying that G-d Almighty delivers big miracles, miracles of Biblical proportions,” said Chabad of South Broward Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus, who counts 34 members among the missing, including his sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and the dead.

What’s left of Champlain South, a place where retirement dreams came true and a growing number of young families put down roots, is now inhabited by search-and- rescue crews finding stuffed animals, toys, wallets, handwritten cards and photographs but few bodies. The smell of diesel fumes and the sounds of giant cranes drift over the ruins and across Collins Avenue.

Surfsiders are in shock and they dread that their town, like Parkland, will forever be famous for tragedy.

“Surfside is at the center of the universe at this moment. Can you believe it? Nothing ever happens here,” Peggy Sreter said. “From now on, we will be labeled as the town where the condo collapsed.”

Sreter and her husband Abe, owners of The Carrot cafe in Surfside’s two-block downtown on Harding Avenue, estimate they knew 50 people who lived at Champlain South. They’ve heard harrowing accounts from only four survivors, including that of a friend who stepped out of her 11th floor door and nearly stumbled into the abyss on the other side of the hall where her neighbors’ units had fallen to the ground.

“So many of our regular customers are unaccounted for,” Sreter said as she readied platters of food for family members waiting at the community center. “But my mother’s cousin made it. She was on the safe side of the building.”

Surfside residents and passers-by stop to reflect at the memorial site on Sunday, July 4, 2021 in Surfside, Florida as plans for the demolition of Champlain Towers are being brought forward over safety concerns due to an approaching storm. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

‘All the Cuban grandparents lived in that building’

Sreter’s late mother lived in No. 304 at Champlain South during her retirement years. Sreter’s parents were among a large group of Cuban Jews who immigrated to Miami in 1960 after Fidel Castro’s revolution. They settled in Surfside.

“The south tower used to be full of Jewbans like us,” said Sreter, recalling how her children grew up spending weekends at their grandmother’s pool. “It’s an institution. All the Cuban grandparents lived in that building.”

And the abuelas did not like to lose their penny ante poker games, said Surfside native Michelle Kuper, whose grandmother and aunt lived in Champlain East.

“I would laugh at my grandmother because every week at the bank she would get her money, like $100, broken down with some 20-dollar bills but also rolls of nickels, dimes and pennies,” Kuper said. “They took it very seriously. You didn’t mess with them when they were playing cards.”

Successive waves of immigrants were also drawn to Surfside and Champlain South, where they found their own piece of paradise on the seashore. In the 40 years since it was built — named by its French-Canadian developer — it has become home to more and more Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Argentinians, Brazilians, Chileans, Paraguayans and Uruguayans.

Latin American Jews have flocked to the Champlain complex, attracted by the proximity of synagogues and kosher restaurants and leaving behind economic turmoil in some of their countries. In recent years, more young people and couples with young children have moved in, joining snowbirds, seasonal renters and transplants from New York City.

Members of Florida Task Force 8 bow their heads in prayer after pinning an autographed shirt signed by team members at the memorial site on Sunday, July 4, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

Champlain Towers as Miami microcosm

The remarkable mosaic of people at Champlain South is a reflection of Miami and its demographic evolution.

“Everybody in Miami knows somebody from that building or knows somebody who knows somebody,” said Charles Danger, Miami’s retired building chief and member of the Belen Jesuit Preparatory School alumni association. A Belen graduate is among the missing. “It’s like six degrees of separation, or less.”

Nancy Kress Levin, her sons Frankie and Jay Kleiman and another relative, Deborah Berezdivin, were caught in the collapse. Levin left Cuba for Puerto Rico in 1959 and moved to Champlain South soon after it was built in 1981. She was known as a doting abuela and active member of the Shul of Bal Harbour.

Leon Oliwkowicz, 80, and his wife, Cristina Beatriz Elvira de Oliwkowicz, 74, retired to Unit 704 from Venezuela. They had strong ties to the Lubavitch community. Their bodies were recovered Sunday.

Harry Rosenberg, 52, had moved to Surfside from Brooklyn after a devastating year during which he lost his wife to cancer and both parents to COVID-19. “I’m so happy to be here; this is my next chapter of happiness,” he said of Champlain, choosing a larger unit to have room for his children and their families to visit. His daughter and her husband had just flown in from New Jersey to visit the night of the collapse. They, too, are feared lost in the rubble.

Young professionals like Alfredo Leone, who is Italian, and his wife Raquel Oliveira, who is Brazilian, moved to the building in 2020 and fell in love with the ocean views from their two-bedroom rental. Leone and the couple’s son Lorenzo, 5, are missing.

Also missing are newlyweds Luis Sadovnic, a Venezuelan who met his bride Nicole Langesfeld, an American of Argentinian descent, at the University of Florida. They got married on the beach in front of his grandmother’s eighth floor Champlain South condo, and then they moved in.

Marcus Guara, 52, graduated from Miami’s Christopher Columbus High School and rowed for the University of Miami. He and his wife Anaely Rodriguez lived with daughters Lucia, 10, and Emma, 4, on the eighth floor. The girls loved playing on the beach. The entire family was killed in the catastrophic failure of the building.

Graciela Cattarossi, 48, was a native of Argentina and a professional photographer who enjoyed playing tennis on the courts where memorial photos and flowers honoring the missing have been hung on the outer fence. She lived with her 7-year-old daughter Stella and her parents Gino and Graciela — a former Uruguayan diplomat — in unit 501. Cattarossi’s sister Andrea was visiting. All are feared lost.

An Indian-American family has not been found. Vishal and Bhavna Patel recently moved to Miami from New York with their 1-year-old daughter, Aishani. Bhavna was four months pregnant.

Erick De Moura, a native of Brazil, lived in Unit 1004 and made the fortunate decision to stay overnight at his girlfriend’s place after playing soccer and watching a Copa America game there. The 40-year-old consultant moved from Brasilia in 2018 looking for a fresh start after having lived in New York and Boston in the early 2000s.

“Surfside and this building in particular was like a paradise to me. A paradise that was attainable, something I could actually aspire to,” he told the Herald Thursday.

A photo of office workers dressed for a company Christmas celebration is left displayed at the makeshift memorial on the beach south of the site of Champlain Towers South on Sunday, July 4, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

Surfside rooted in small town

Surfside, pop. 5,651, incorporated in 1935 by members of the then “Gentiles-Only” Surf Club, has a reputation for being pleasant, quiet, tidy, affordable, safe. Bookended by much taller, trendier, touristy Miami Beach and ritzy Bal Harbour, Surfside was always the town that was determined to stay small.

“Surfside wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t fancy, like some of the other communities around there,” said Miami historian Paul George. “I’ve always found it to be kind of an aberration.”

Surfside Vice Mayor Tina Paul returned to her hometown in 2011 after a career as a photographer in New York City to care for her parents and advocate for preservation of historic buildings and Surfside’s 12-foot height restriction on buildings east of Collins Avenue. The Champlain disaster has put a spotlight not only on the town’s quirky character but its fortitude.

“What’s great about New York is all the flavors, and when I moved back home I found it here, too,” Paul said. “We have a larger Jewish community today and better understanding of the Jewish community where there was some division before. People see that Jews rock! Look at the response to this crisis. We see that there is so much love in this town.”

Like the rest of Miami, Surfside has become a much more expensive place to live, with luxury, brand-name condos like Fendi Chateau Residences replacing vintage buildings.

The median value of an owner-occupied home is $625,500 and median rent is $1,977 while 23 percent of the population is over 65 and 44 percent is foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A three-bed, two-bath unit on the ninth floor of Champlain South, 1,748 square feet, sold on June 17, 2021, for $710,000, according to Zillow.

“It’s more hip. We’re not so quiet anymore with the development of the Surf Club into a Four Seasons Hotel,” she said. “A lot of us want to save the simplicity and keep out the high-end stuff.”

Today, Surfside’s downtown is a mix of old and new, with mom-and-pop jewelry stores, tailors and florists next to a vegan cafe or sushi restaurant. Kosherland, open 7:45 p.m. to 8 p.m. except Fridays when it closes “two hours before lighting,” sits across the street from Starbuck’s.

You can purchase a hair piece at Yaffa Wigs, have a Brazilian bikini wax at Unikwax or get fitted for a hearing aid at the corner audiologist. You’re as likely to see a traditionally dressed Orthodox couple pushing strollers as a tattooed skateboarder.

Surfside’s small-town scale has been a magnet for its Jewish residents. Six synagogues are within walking distance, which is essential for those who abide by the sabbath, or day of rest, which prohibits driving. Many buildings are equipped with elevators that run automatically and stop on every floor so that observant Jews don’t need to press any buttons.

Hialeah resident Alison Kairuz ponders for a moment after pinning her handmade sign to the fence in support of families and friends who lost loved ones, at the memorial site on Sunday, July 4, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

Jewish community at the heart of Surfside

The close-knit Jewish community has been devastated by the Champlain tower collapse. About one third of the people still unaccounted for are Jewish, rabbis from local temples say. That reflects the fact that about one-third of the population of 14,600 in the towns of Surfside, Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands and Indian Creek is Jewish, according to University of Miami Geography Professor Ira Sheskin, who has studied the demographics of U.S. Jewish communities. And about 30 percent are Hispanic Jews, primarily from Cuba, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela.

In his 2014 study, 34 percent of the Jews in area code 33154 identify as Orthodox, 24 percent as Conservative, 18 percent as Reform and 24 percent as “just Jewish.” About 3 percent of Americans are Jewish.

Synagogues sprang into action, providing kosher food and clothing, organizing support groups, prayer vigils and fundraising drives. Evacuated survivors have been offered a place to stay in their neighbors’ homes and Shabbat meals. Restaurants have delivered food, medical professionals have offered services, wig shops have donated wigs to Orthodox women who cover their hair in public and had to flee the building without their belongings.

“I grew up in this bubble called Surfside,” said Esther Moore, 30, a colorist at Yaffa Wigs. “It’s a homey place. We take care of each other, no matter what your background may be.”

The Shul, which counts 700 families among its members, has raised $1.3 million in emergency funds to be disbursed to victims’ families. The Shul, Jewish hub of the North Beach area, grew by four dozen families in the past year as people moved from hard-hit New York City during the coronavirus pandemic. There are so many new kids they had to add classrooms at the Hebrew school.

“We are like a big family and we’ve lost so many members of our family,” said Berta Chudaitov, a native of Ukraine who followed her children to Surfside so she could live near them and her grandchildren. “We are sensitive people. We are hurting deeply.”

Chudaitov was shopping at Kosherland, where longtime cashier Sandra Hirsh worries that Surfside will never recover from the pain of so much senseless death.

“When did you ever see this happen in America — a building full of people falling to the ground?” Hirsh said as her eyes welled with tears. “Soon the family members who survived will be back in the store and what are we going to say to them? There’s nothing to say.”

Rescuers and a rescue dog are seen on the rubble as the search and rescue mission continues at the 12-story oceanfront condo Champlain Towers South, nine days after the building collapsed, on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

St. Joseph’s parishioners among missing

At St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where the parking lot straddles the border between Surfside and Miami Beach, Father Juan Sosa estimates that 20-25 parishioners from eight destroyed units are missing.

The church conducts Mass in four languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish.

“We have welcomed people from 21 Latin American countries, and each group provides gifts of its own identity,” said Sosa of the 1,300 families in his parish.

Before moving to Surfside 10 years ago, he served in Kendall and in North Miami, where he began a Haitian ministry. “Surfside is a more harmonious place today than when I started here. Sometimes there were obstacles to creating unity because people grow up with prejudice and racism and stereotypes.”

Commissioner Nelly Velasquez moved from Queens to Surfside eight years ago, soon after she “fell in love at first sight with the place and its walkability and its modest, pretty houses” during a vacation visit. She decided she couldn’t tolerate one more winter and moved her family into one of those houses. She joined the increasing percentage of year-round residents.

“It’s like we’re part of Miami but we don’t have to deal with the hustle and bustle and the traffic and the hassles and the hostility. We’re self-contained,” said Velasquez, who ran for office to preserve “our small-town essence.”

Surfside was previously most well known as the home of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. “Surfside Six,” a 1960-62 TV series better known for its campy theme song than its plots, starred Troy Donohue and Van Williams as private detectives based on a houseboat. Co-star Diane McBain was a socialite on the yacht next door, and Margarita Sierra — introduced with “Cha-Cha-Cha” lyrics — played a dancer at the Boom Boom Room.

Cuban-Puerto Rican-Jewish diaspora

It was around that time that many Cuban Jews fleeing Castro’s government moved to Puerto Rico or Miami. Cuban Jews living in Puerto Rico later moved to Miami — as Nancy Kress Levin did — in a double diaspora, said Diego Mendelbaum, leader of the Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico/Shaare Zedeck synagogue who has traveled to Surfside to offer spiritual and emotional support.

“Sometimes answers won’t appear, but the love and support that is offered to those who need it so badly at this time ends up being the most important thing,” Mendelbaum said.

Miami Beach, which borders Surfside, was a preferred place to settle because an established Jewish community there, said Jorge Duany, director of FIU’s Cuban Research Institute.

“When I came here, I was struck by how many former classmates and entire families that had been raised in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 1970s were now here,” said Duany, Cuban-born and raised in Puerto Rico.

Cuban Jews came to Surfside long before it was considered a cool spot in order to rebuild their businesses and savings after leaving the island with little in their pockets. They lived in simple garden apartments and converted motels with kitchenettes. When the new Champlain Towers were advertised as “elegant” it was a natural upgrade.

“We have a lot of Latin Jewish people here. And also American Jewish people and American non-Jewish people from New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and some couples from Russia. We all get along very well,” said Hilda Gandelman, 83, who has lived on the 10th floor at Champlain North since 1986 and plans to stay.

“It is a really beautiful community. I love the Champlain Towers,” she said. “I am still in the building. We did not have to evacuate. We have a very sound building. I am not worried. I feel safe. Some people got scared and left.”

Bennett Bramson, formerly a teacher at Nautilus Middle School and Lehrman Jewish Day School and an ex-employee of Surfside’s parks and recreation department, is good friends with missing couple Arnie and Myriam Notkin. Arnie was a beloved elementary school physical education teacher.

“The Cuban Jews had been living in small apartment buildings a little west of there, five people in two-bedroom duplexes. And those areas started to become a little less desirable. So, moving to Champlain was a way to move up in society. It was by the ocean, on the east side, it was prestigious but still in the Surfside area. The people who moved there were like, ‘My gosh, we have a view of the ocean! This place is heaven.’”

Harmony had eroded since a 2018 engineering report warned about “major structural damage” to the slab beneath the pool and “abundant cracking” in the underground parking garage, which is where the pancake collapse of the building seems to have initiated.

The report warned about the cost and inconvenience entailed in making repairs “in a timely fashion” as Champlain South leaders and tenants anticipated the 40-year recertification process. Conflict on the condo association board and between the association’s officers and residents led to disputes on assessments and delays in $14 million restoration work.

Recovery operation has slowed down at Champlain Towers South as Miami-Dade Police placed a perimeter about one block south and two blocks north restricting any foot traffic near the site on Sunday, July 4, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. Pictured is the remaining debris of the collapsed building. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

Champlain Towers demolition to begin

The unstable South tower is to be demolished as early as Sunday, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced Saturday as Tropical Storm Elsa churned toward South Florida, prompting fears that it could topple the structure.

Adding to the despair, the demo will delay rescue efforts as they enter the 11th day and survivors will not be allowed to salvage possessions from intact units such as heirloom menorahs, family photographs and mementos passed down for generations.

“One of the hardest things for me about this whole thing is that the one safe place we all have in our lives is our home, our bed,” Bramson said. “These people who worked so hard to be able to live there were in a place of safety and security and it may become their tomb.”

Miami Herald staff writers Michelle Kaufman, Adriana Brasileiro and Syra Ortiz-Blanes contributed to this report.

Sponsored