SURFSIDE — Nearly one year ago, the tiny town of Surfside became a disaster zone.
Crying family members piled into the Community Center, unsure if their loved ones were among the 98 dead in the Champlain Towers South collapse. Search-and-rescue teams from across the United States set up tents in a nearby park where they slept in between shifts. Residents had to show ID to get to their homes.
In the months that followed, life in the town slowly returned to normal, but residents say their community of 5,600 people will be forever scarred by the tragedy. As the anniversary of the June 24 collapse approaches, they say they will never forget.
“You kind of get through it and you live your life and you get up every day. But I think people are, to different degrees, dealing with the effects of it,” said Hillary Feldman, who moved to Surfside from Pittsburgh with her husband eight years ago.
Feldman, who lives in a condo just a few blocks from the site of the tragedy, said she still hasn’t regained the sense of security she used to have before the 12-story Champlain Towers collapsed in the early morning hours.
Her building, the Marbella, is 33 years old and is expected to soon receive an engineering report detailing what type of repairs may be needed. After the collapse, residents in her building wondered how safe they were. She still isn’t sure.
“The answer is still probably not as safe as we thought we were,” she said.
The building collapse is still very much on the minds of residents. “I think people still talk about it for sure,” Feldman said. “And obviously you still see the big hole in the ground.”
Banners bearing the names and ages of those who died in the collapse now hang along the fence of the site at 8777 Collins Ave.
The disaster pushed Surfside into the national spotlight and then after a few months the attention waned. But the name of the town will forever be associated with one of the deadliest building failures in U.S. history.
Gerardo Vildostegui, a resident, said he remembers when Surfside was still a town that few knew. His Facebook bio used to list his home as Miami Beach because it was easier to explain to people.
“Nobody ever exactly knew where it was,” he said. “It was nice to be off the map a little bit. Now that’s certainly not the case.”
Since the collapse, he said he changed the bio to say Surfside to honor the town where he grew up.
Vildostegui said he remembers when the Champlain Towers South was built. The multicultural community in the building exemplified the Surfside spirit, he said.
The fallout from the collapse seemed to touch every corner of the one-half-square-mile town. His new neighbor told him her friend died in the building. The mother of his lifelong friend said she went to school in Cuba with another victim. And when he went out to eat at Specchio Cafe in town, he overheard a conversation about regular customers who were victims as well.
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Before a new building is constructed at the Champlain Towers site, he said, the community should receive closure about what caused the collapse.
Driving across the Broad Causeway into Bay Harbor Islands, he can spot the gap in the skyline where the building once stood.
“It took so long to get used to that hole in the skyline,” he said. “A year later I’m sure a lot of us are still feeling these things and it’s good we have an anniversary to talk about it because in some ways you do get used to the skyline.”
Former Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer, who was in office when the collapse happened, said the families of the 98 victims are still waiting for answers as there has been no official determination about what caused the collapse.
The federal investigation may take until 2024 to complete, but Salzhauer and family members of those who died want answers sooner. The $1 billion settlement in the class-action lawsuit related to the collapse shouldn’t be the last chapter in the story of the Surfside collapse, she said.
“We need to know what happened so that we can prevent it from happening again,” she said. “I don’t see the attention being paid to that.”
Salzhauer said national focus turned too quickly away from Surfside. “It’s very frustrating to be on the receiving end of the very short attention span of the American public.”
New people in town
The town is experiencing an influx of new residents. David Karp, vice president of the Marbella Condominium Association and Feldman’s husband, said he thought residents would start moving out and buying houses to get away from condo life.
But in the months since the collapse, he said the real estate market heated up in Surfside, with units filling up quickly and selling for a premium.
“We’re selling like crazy,” Karp said. “The price is doubling. They’re walking in off the street.”
One of the most high-profile real estate deals in town is the sale of the land where the Champlain Towers South once stood. A billionaire developer from Dubai will buy the oceanfront property for $120 million.
Mayor Shlomo Danzinger, who entered office after the collapse, said he doesn’t want the community to forget about what happened.
Before he was elected in March, a large makeshift memorial along Harding Avenue had been dismantled for preservation and replaced with a small poster tucked away near the tennis courts.
For the anniversary, he said, the town will light a torch along Collins Avenue. This Friday, and every June 24 that follows, will be known as Surfside Champlain Towers South Remembrance Day.
The town — with input from family members — is expected to soon begin discussing options for a permanent memorial to the victims.
“Like it or not, this is gonna be part of our history,” he said. “I think it’s important to remember.”
By Martin Vassolo