SURFSIDE — As the hope of finding survivors dimmed at the site of the Surfside condo collapse, some heartsick families were already grieving an unfathomable loss.
Five residents of Champlain Towers South, which collapsed early Thursday morning, were identified among the nine dead recovered by rescuers. This leaves 152 residents unaccounted for as rescuers continue the desperate, delicate operation of sifting through the rubble in search of survivors.
Anywhere from 50 to 60 rescuers at a time are working in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. But so far only 15-year-old Jonah Handler, a 10th-grade junior varsity baseball player at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens, has been pulled from the wreckage, shortly after the building fell.
Jonah’s mother was not so lucky. Stacie Fang was the first victim to be identified after being taken to Aventura Hospital and Medical Center on Thursday.
Three other victims identified are: Manuel LaFont, a divorced dad and business consultant who owned a condo on the eighth floor, and Gladys and Anthony Lozano, a couple originally from Cuba who had been married 59 years. As of now, the other victims have not been identified.
A SINGLE DAD
Most afternoons, you could find Manuel LaFont playing baseball with his son at North Shore Park.
“They were out there until the lights when out,” said Danny Berry, director of Miami Beach Youth Baseball League, on Sunday morning.
LaFont, 54, had a 10-year-old son, Santi, and 13-year-old daughter with his ex-wife Adriana LaFont, who had picked up the kids on Wednesday night, hours before the collapse.
Adriana asked her friends on Facebook to pray the rosary for Manny on Friday. She posted pictures of her family from their years together at the Champlain — baby pictures, birthday parties, beach days and other memories from their life at the Champlain.
“So many memories inside the walls that are no more today, forever engraved experiences in the heart,” she wrote.
LaFont, a Houston native and alumnus of Sharpstown High School, coached his son’s baseball team, the Astros at North Shore Park. He was a parishioner at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Miami Beach, where his kids went to school. The parish’s school parents gathered Saturday afternoon to pray for LaFont and his neighbors who were still missing.
LaFont had just started a new job after being out of work for most of the COVID-19 pandemic. The work sometimes took him abroad. For three years, LaFont worked across Latin American and the Caribbean for a manufacturing firm, leading a division that focused on roadway safety that built crash cushions and movable barriers. At an industry conference in 2016, he gave an interview where he talked about why he got into this line of work.
“I got into this industry specifically because I don’t want to sell widgets. I want to help people. I want to do something good in this world,” he said. “When I die, I want to say that my life meant something.”
SIX DECADES OF MARRIAGE
Gladys and Anthony Lozano, both originally from Cuba, were married for 59 years and were described as “beautiful people.”
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In an Instagram post by Phil Ferro, WSVN7′s chief meteorologist, he said Gladys was his godmother and Anthony was his uncle.
“They were found today in the rubble of the collapsed condo building in Surfside,” he wrote. “They were such beautiful people. May they Rest In Peace.”
Gladys, 79 and Anthony, 83, lived in apartment 903.
Their son Sergio told Tim Chapman, a former Miami Herald news photographer, that they had died in their sleep.
MOTHER OF THE FIRST SURVIVOR
Stacie Fang, 54, the first victim to be identified in the Surfside calamity, was buried Sunday in New Jersey, according to NBC6.
Her son Jonah, 15, was rescued Thursday shortly after the collapse, when a neighbor walking his dog on the beach heard the building fall and ran to the site. He arrived before fire and rescue crews got there and was taking photos of the rubble when he heard a voice and spotted a hand waving. Rescuers eventually pulled out Jonah. His mother was taken to Aventura Hospital and Medical Center where her death was confirmed Friday morning.
Fang, a retail consultancy executive, was vice president of Customer Relationship Management Conference and had worked at the Surfside-based firm for 12 years, according to the Palm Beach Post.
On Friday, the Handler and Fang families released a statement:
“There are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie. The members of the Fang and Handler family would like to express our deepest appreciation for the outpouring of sympathy, compassion and support we have received. The many heartfelt words of encouragement and love have served as a much needed source of strength during this devastating time. On behalf of Stacie’s son, Jonah, we ask you now to please respect our privacy to grieve and to try to help each other heal.”
Neil Handler, Jonah’s father, has created a GoFundMe for his son’s medical and emotional expenses.
A MAN WITH ‘NO LIMITS’
Luis Bermúdez, a 26-year-old man from Puerto Rico and 7th floor resident of Champlain Towers South, was killed in the collapse, according to family members who announced his death on social media.
“My luiyo. Rest in peace my life. I love you and I will love you forever. Thank you for teaching me so much and how to be a dad. I will miss you all my life,” his father, also named Luis Bermúdez, wrote on his Facebook page.
In a photograph below the message, the elder Bermúdez had a hand over his shoulder as his child smiled at the camera, clasping a red rose in his hands.
“Take care of us from the sky!,” his aunt Magui Bermúdez said. “Fly high my warrior!!!”
Cascades of messages of comfort, remembrance and love for Luiyo, as he was nicknamed by love ones, flowed on social media.
“LUIYO fly high, THANK YOU so much for the laughter, experiences and above all, LIVING life to the fullest,” a friend of the family wrote.
Bermúdez went missing along with his mother Ana Ortiz and her newlywed husband, Frankie Kleiman. Kleimans’ mother Nancy, lived on the same floor. His brother Jay was also in town at the time of the collapse. All have been missing since the building fell down Thursday, leaving rubble, shards, and debris where the 12-story residential tower once stood.
Luis Andrés Bermúdez, nicknamed Luiyo by loved ones, was born on Dec. 6, 1994. He described himself as a man with “a big heart” who was “happy to live another day.”
One person interviewed described him as “the light of the eyes of his father,” and many told the Miami Herald he was adored by his family and parents. The elder Bermúdez arrived in Miami soon after the building fell, waiting for news of his child and other relatives.
“To call him unforgettable is an understatement,” wrote Jose J. Ortiz Carlo, a teacher from Bermudez’s high school.
Bermúdez had muscular dystrophy and used a wheelchair. The teacher described the young man as a “champion survivor.”
Bermúdez ran a clothing business called Saucy Boyz Clothing. Many of the shirts, socks, and hats are covered in colorful sketches of sushi, a food he loved.
Luiyo shared time lapse videos of his creative process. Wearing a shirt of his own design, he grabbed the markers in his right hand, and drew vivid nigiri and maki rolls onto the white page.
The 26-year-old said his condition meant he had difficulty using his hands and fingers. But he was persistent and found a way to make his art.
“Because of my attitude I have achieved my dream,” he shared on his Instagram. “The purpose of these designs is to share my art with the world and let them know that despite whatever impediments they may have, they can achieve what they set out in their mind and heart. “There are no limits.””