SURFSIDE — The empty oceanfront land that once was home to the Champlain Towers South condo building slowly filled with people again early Friday morning.
The families of the 98 victims who died when the building collapsed a year ago, in the early morning hours of June 24, gathered under a large white tent at the eastern edge of the 1.8-acre lot in Surfside — separated by a yellow fence from an overhang leading down to the concrete-and-steel ruins.
At 1:22 a.m., the crowd of a few hundred family members and invited guests marked the one-year anniversary of the building collapse. The glow from torches lit up the tent as family members embraced each other. Town workers lit a separate gas torch across from the site at Veterans Park, where it will remain until July 20, the day the last collapse victim was recovered.
The scene was quiet outside the vigil, except for the uplifting Paraguayan music that Perla Irala played from a small speaker near a banner memorializing the names of the victims.
Irala, a Paraguayan living in Sunny Isles Beach, lit candles and placed flowers under the name of Leidy Luna Villalba, a 23-year-old Paraguayan who died in the collapse. She printed out a photo of her and carried a plaque honoring her life.
“For me they are here with me,” she said.
For many family members, Friday marked their first time stepping foot on the grounds.
Rachel Spiegel, whose mother Judy Spiegel died in the collapse, said she had been near the site before but never beyond the fence.
“I just hope that I feel close to my mom,” she said. “I miss her.”
Her brother, Josh Spiegel, said it was hard to comprehend that it has been a year since his mother died.
“Cherish every moment that you have with your loved ones because you never know what could potentially happen,” he said.
Nearby, dozens of white posts representing the victims of the collapse had been lined up earlier in the day, taken out of storage after originally being displayed near a makeshift memorial wall after the collapse.
Bearing the names of the dead, each post featured messages of sorrow, compassion and love — written by strangers and family members alike. They stretched out about 50 feet when lined up in two rows, a representation of the massive loss of life.
“Love you baby! Papi.”
“Te amaremos siempre.” (“We will always love you.”)
“Dancing with angels.”
Friday’s private vigil was closed to the public and off limits for gathered media. But TV crews surrounded family members as they entered the property. For those who have been grieving the past year, it brought back memories of the confusion and tragedy from last summer.
Martin Langesfeld, whose sister Nicole Langesfeld died in the collapse, said he had flashbacks to last year in seeing media tents and a heavy police presence. A year later, he said families are still waiting for answers about what caused the collapse.
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“We decided to make today a private event because there hasn’t been any privacy this entire year,” he said. “No one has any answers. Everybody wants to know what happened. And we need these two hours tonight to just have peace and connect with our loved ones that were taken from us in their own homes.”
Lori Hayward, whose father, Arnie Notkin, died in the collapse, said returning to the collapse site was difficult because it brought back painful memories.
“It’s just really difficult being back but I’m hoping that this weekend will be helpful in everybody’s pain and grief,” she said.
A public memorial event is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday. First lady Jill Biden will speak. She will be joined by Surfside Mayor Shlomo Danzinger, U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other elected officials.
The event, which the Miami Herald will broadcast live on YouTube, will feature remarks from family members, emergency officials and elected officials.
Commanders from urban search-and-rescue teams — who spent nearly a month looking for survivors and recovering the dead — are expected to read the names of the 98 victims, according to a schedule of events distributed to families.
The town of Surfside is organizing the anniversary events with a committee of family members.
On Thursday, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman approved a $1 billion settlement for the wrongful death and personal injury claims from family members and survivors of the collapse as part of a class-action lawsuit stemming from the collapse.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who helped oversee the response to the collapse, reflected on the one-year anniversary in a Twitter post. She and Hanzman are expected to attend Friday’s public event.
“We honor all those we lost, the families they left behind, and those who lost everything,” she wrote. “Today and every day, we stand with the families whose lives were forever changed, and we commit that the memories of their loved ones will never be forgotten. Miami-Dade is and will always be #SurfsideStrong.”