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‘You can imagine the horrible anguish’ — families searching for Surfside loved ones

Hundreds of loved ones searched frantically for information Thursday at the family reunification center.
Family, residents and tourists from the Champlain Towers and nearby buildings wait for updates at a reunification center at 9301 Collins Ave in Surfside, Florida on Thursday.
Family, residents and tourists from the Champlain Towers and nearby buildings wait for updates at a reunification center at 9301 Collins Ave in Surfside, Florida on Thursday.
Published Jun. 24

Luz Marina Peña, whose 77-year-old aunt is missing in the Surfside condo collapse, has been waiting outside the family reunification center since 5 a.m. Thursday, after getting a call from a cousin in New York with the news.

“You can imagine the horrible anguish, because you don’t know what— if she’s under the debris, if she’s alive, if she isn’t,” said Peña, who held up a photo of her missing aunt, Marina Azen.

Azen is asthmatic and lived alone on the fourth floor of the building, Peña said.

“We’ve called the police stations, we’ve called the hospitals, we’ve done the police report. We’ve done everything humanly possible,” said Peña. “We want to be in the first place where we can get the news.”

Related: Miami condo collapse live updates: 99 now feared missing in rubble

The ocean-facing portion of Champlain Towers South Condo, completed in 1981 with 130 units at 8777 Collins Ave., collapsed around 1:30 a.m. Thursday, trapping residents asleep in their beds.

FAMILIES SEARCHING FOR INFORMATION ON LOVED ONES

Hundreds of families and loved ones searched frantically for information Thursday at the family reunification center set up near the Surfside Community Center, with some cupping their faces as they wept while others embraced relatives.

Volunteers brought coffee, sandwiches and coats to the reunification center, 9301 Collins Ave., a few blocks north of the rubble. Staff working at plastic fold-out tables split up the crowd in groups, based on building and floor number, because many residents had nowhere to go. Some fifty-five units in the building collapsed.

Aleida Gonzalez, who lives down the street, was visibly upset as she tried to determine whether her family members were OK. She said they were a popular couple in the building: one a therapist and the other an attorney. They had lived there for more than 20 years.

“All I can say is this was a good building,” Gonzalez said. “I have never heard about any problems there.”

Gonzalez first heard of the collapse when she woke up and saw it on the news. She rushed down to the reunification center not knowing whether her loved ones were safe, but there was no one there who could ease her concerns.

“I’m trying to get a head count,’' she said. " … they can’t release anything.”

Many of those at the scene were tourists who had been evacuated from nearby buildings after the collapse.

Abigail Crosby and Aaron Miles, both 20, had been staying for a week at the Bluegreen Vacations Solara Surfside resort, 8801 Collins Ave., the building next door, visiting from Charlottesville, Virginia. They were both awakened around 1 a.m. with fire alarms and announcements they had to to evacuate because the building next door collapsed.

“We had five kids on the second floor so I threw the phone down and grabbed the littlest one … and whatever I had I grabbed,” said Crosby.

They said the collapse initially sounded like a strong wind, and they both assumed there was a storm coming.

“When you go to the lobby it was nothing but dust and debris,” said Miles. “As soon as I pulled back the curtain, my heart dropped knowing that there was people I had seen just that afternoon before we had left, playing with children and things like that.”

Wayne Conner, who was visiting Miami Beach from Virginia with 10 family members, was not missing any loved ones, but he had no idea where he was going to stay that evening.

Conner said he was sleeping in his room at the Solara resort, when he awoke to what sounded like a loud crash of thunder. The resort is next door to Champlain Towers South and has been evacuated.

“I thought a storm had come through. All of a sudden the fire alarm went off,” Conner said.

The rubble of the building made it apparent that the condo tower had collapsed straight down on top of itself, he added.

“It reminded me of the World Trade Center and 9/11,” Conner said.

REUNIFICATION HOTLINE

Families and loved ones who have relatives who live or work at the Champlain Tower and are unaccounted for or know that they are safe should call 305-614-1819 to notify officials, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, the agency taking the lead in the search-and-rescue mission.