SURFSIDE, Florida — In Surfside, if a resident isn’t friends or family with a person directly affected by the Champlain building collapse, then they know someone who knows someone.
“The first child that was pulled out was in my daughter’s class,” said Rosa Menendez, a 47-year-old who has lived in the area for eight years, including in an apartment building just four blocks from the collapsed tower, where 20 people have died and over 140 are still missing. Her relatives lived in Champlain North and have been evacuated.
“My nephew’s Little League coach was in there and died,” added her husband, Giovanni Lignarolo.
Exactly one week after the tragedy, they went for a morning walk down the beach to see the collapsed building for the first time. Despite not considering themselves religious, they prayed at the barrier, where people tuck flowers in as a memorial to the missing. Then they went to the popular Josh’s Deli to eat bagels and see friendly faces.
The deli sits on Harding Avenue, the main shopping strip in Surfside that police have closed off and are only letting locals into. Even with the road closures — worsened by a visit by President Joe Biden to the area Thursday — residents have been turning up to share their stories, ask about just what the hell happened, and try to figure out ways they can help those in need.
“The amount of people that came in here to talk with me, just level me with their stories, was pretty intense,” said Josh Marcus, the 47-year-old owner of Josh’s Deli. “Everybody wants to have a connection with this building.”
One customer was in tears telling him about how she runs past the Champlain complex daily. A regular sold their condo in the building seven weeks earlier. A longtime customer’s mother lived in the tower that remained standing. Years ago, Marcus dated a girl who lived in the building that collapsed.
“Everybody looks familiar; it’s a small town,” said Jessie Nichols, a 36-year-old regular who had come into the deli for the first time since the collapse to get a turkey sandwich at the counter. Her husband knew people who were missing, and she knew of others with missing parents and grandparents, but the couple had been unable to attend the late-night vigils because they have two young children.
Nichols wasn’t interested in going to see the site of the collapse — “It’s just a pile of concrete; it’s hard to humanize that” — and Marcus replied that he’d also been avoiding it.
Originally from New York, Marcus opened his deli 11 years ago, serving old-school Jewish classics, such as pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, but with a twist (you can “Jewbanize” a sandwich by adding roasted pork, cheese, and mustard, like a classic Cuban sandwich).
In the years since, Surfside has become steadily more religious, he noted, and now Josh’s Deli is one of the few non-kosher restaurants in the neighborhood. But since the collapse, streets were empty as tourists disappeared and police shut down most of the major roads in the neighborhood to ensure that rescue workers, equipment, and families had access to the site.
“Josh the businessperson is stressed and freaking out about the fact that there are closures, and Josh the person is like, ‘What can I do to help?’” Marcus said.
So far, he’s collected more than $3,000 in donations from customers to put toward food for those in need. On Wednesday, he made 40 sandwiches to distribute to families of the missing and survivors of the building collapse through Food Rescue Miami. On Friday, Marcus delivered 170 lunches to the site of the collapse, known as “the pile,” after coordinating with Miami officials.
“It’s like the movie set from hell,” he told BuzzFeed News after delivering the lunches. But he felt glad to be providing something everybody needs: food.
“That’s what we’re focusing on: How can I help?” Menendez said.
“And not be in the way,” Lignarolo added.
They had donated money to Marcus’s fundraiser and were focusing their help on their own displaced relatives: He made them chicken soup; she cooked them picadillo.
“I feel helping is the minimum I can do,” said Caroline Goncalves, a server at Josh’s Deli. “It’s really, really sad to think about the families lost.”
So, like generations before her, she also tried to use food as a salve. A woman who had family members missing came in and ordered a smoothie. Goncalves slipped in extra bananas, wanting to make sure the woman had proper sustenance while she waited for news of her loved ones.
Next door on Harding Avenue, people ordered salads and wraps at the Carrot, a kosher restaurant, and talked about how the road closures are frustrating everyone and about the utter surreal nature of suddenly finding their sleepy small town in the national news.
The restaurant’s owner, 66-year-old Peggy Sreter, had dinner in the collapsed building two weeks ago at one of her best friend’s homes. Four of her close friends lived in the building, and all of them managed to escape out of the rubble. Sreter's mother used to live in the building, and she explained that the apartments had been the place of many birthday parties and carpool pickups for kids across Surfside.
“It’s an institution, the Champlain,” Sreter said. “Everybody feels a loss.”
Another door down, the windows at Rolling Pin Kosher Bakery were full of rugelach and fresh challah.
“People we know are there, our customers,” said Roemer Cantillo, who had just sold the bakery after owning it for decades but is still working there.
“Wednesday morning, about 10 o’clock, I talked to a lady — she has a little kid, a little girl — and I understand she’s there,” he added, referring to the huge pile of rubble.
He didn’t know her name, but he knew her order.
“She came every day,” Cantillo said. “The little girl ate a bagel with seeds, and she’d take three egg rolls.”