SURFSIDE, Florida — A water lover, Elena Blasser adored that her two-bedroom condo on the 11th floor of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, had views of both the ocean and the pool.
But the thought of those views now haunts her son.
“From up there, you saw the cracks around the pool deck,” Pablo Rodriguez, 40, told BuzzFeed News, standing just blocks away from where his 64-year-old mother’s building collapsed as many residents slept around 1:30 a.m. last Thursday.
His grandmother, 88-year-old Elena Chavez, was staying at Blasser’s home that night. Now both women are among the 150 people missing in the Surfside building collapse, where 11 people have been confirmed dead and a massive search operation continues.
But Rodriguez isn’t holding out hope they’ll be found alive. Instead, he’s already demanding justice for the deaths of his mother and grandmother and calling for accountability, asking why the property was not properly maintained to the point that a building housing hundreds of people could collapse in the middle of the night without warning. The Miami Herald has reported concerns about the building’s safety were brought up multiple times in recent years, including a 2018 inspection report that showed a “major error” in its construction and photos from a pool contractor that showed standing water in the parking garage. The contractor also reportedly raised issues of cracked concrete under the pool just two days before the collapse.
“My wife keeps telling me, ‘What would your mom be doing if she was here?’” said Rodriguez, through tears. “And she would be writing letters, be in front of every camera, reporter, anything, making sure that whoever is responsible is held accountable for this. That’s what keeps me going.”
An attorney born and raised in Miami, Rodriguez knew the building had issues; he’d seen it with his own eyes. Every week he, his wife, and their 6-year-old son got together with his mother to hang out, often visiting her Surfside home to go to the beach or swim in the pool.
“When you’d go to the building, you’d see cracks in the pool deck, water in the garage, you’d see the paint they’d painted and it’d be chipping,” Rodriguez said, “but nothing I thought that would make the building collapse, otherwise none of us would be there.”
He wants those responsible to face the full extent of the law.
“What I really hope is that prosecutors get involved, they investigate, and if there was negligence on their part — and the building is no longer standing, so in my opinion there is negligence, but that’s for them to decide — but if there was, I hope that they investigate it, and they’re held accountable for their actions,” Rodriguez said.
The only updates he’s been getting about how the collapse may have happened have been coming from the media. “Every piece of information that comes out is a little more disheartening,” Rodriguez said.
On Monday, USA Today reported that the president of the condo association had warned residents in April that damage to the building’s basement garage had gotten “significantly worse” and noted the cost of repairs were estimated at $16.2 million.
“I don’t understand how the board allowed the building to get in the condition it was in,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think they planned on the building falling down, but they collected over a million dollars every year in maintenance fees, where was that money going? Because it wasn’t going to maintenance — not with the pictures you’re seeing and the condition the building was in.”
His mother often complained about the building’s condition, Rodriguez said. “She talked often, several other owners talked often, about mismanagement, about misappropriation of the funds,” he said.
Now, Rodriguez is determined to draw attention to what he describes as mismanagement, even while he’s living through a personal nightmare. “That’s the only reason I’m doing this,” he said. “I’ve seen over the years many tragedies on TV, and the ones where nobody is talking about it fizzle away.”
But it’s not easy. He’s slept about five hours total since the collapse five days ago. His son doesn’t know the full extent of what happened and keeps asking to FaceTime his grandmother. The 6-year-old also refuses to be alone, crawling into bed with his parents in the morning for the first time in years.
Rodriguez described his mother and grandmother as independent and fun-loving people — Blasser loved the beach, Chavez traveled to Europe annually — who both adored their close family. “They would always be together,” he said. In photos he shared with BuzzFeed News, the love among the family members is clear — visiting Rodriguez’s brother in DC, posing for photos on the beach, cuddling and kissing each other during holiday celebrations and family meals.
On Monday, Rodriguez visited the wreckage from a distance for the first time.
“When I got out of the car — and I got out right there, next to the guardrail,” said Rodgriguez, pointing to the side of the road, “and if it wasn’t for the guardrail, I would have ended up on the floor, my legs just gave out. Standing here is rough.”
Any flicker of hope he had for finding his family alive dissipated when he saw the security footage video that showed the building’s collapse.
“I could see the balcony of their unit just come completely crashing down, and another building fall on top of it,” he recounted, struggling to talk. “For me, that’s all I see when I close my eyes.”
But he’s determined to find some good — “if that’s the word we can use” — come out of unspeakable tragedy, to make sure no other family has to suffer like his.
“I’m hoping that investigations happen, people are held responsible, and reform comes out of this so that this never happens again.”
His face crumpled. Then, Rodriguez dried his eyes and headed off to his next interview, to keep the story of what happened to his mother and grandmother alive.