Piece By Piece, Stone By Stone: The Unfathomable Scale Of The Surfside Collapse

“You're not on a pile of debris — you're in somebody's house."

SURFSIDE, Florida — Piece by piece, the rescue teams at the Surfside building collapse fill up 5-gallon drums with rubble by hand and pass it down the line. It’s repetitive work — until something jars them.

“You're moving rocks, but then you're finding a Keurig coffee machine,” said Dino Zeljkovic, a 33-year-old rescue specialist with Florida’s Hillsborough County Fire Rescue who has been working on “the pile” for 12 hours a day since last Saturday. “Then you start getting the realization that you're not on a pile of debris — you're in somebody's house.”

“I'm a father to a 2-year-old, so finding lullaby stories and pacifiers...” said Zeljkovic, trailing off. “You're finding personal items that you start getting connected to. And you can't imagine what these people are feeling on the sidelines.”

It’s now been more than 10 days since Champlain Towers South, a high-rise condo right on the beachfront, collapsed in the middle of the night, devastating the small, heavily Jewish community of Surfside. The building, located north of the Miami Beach tourist area, was home to 136 apartments, around half of which were destroyed. More than 120 people are still missing, suspected to be in the rubble. Rescuers have so far found 24 bodies, including those of at least three children, a firefighter’s 7-year-old daughter among them.

“This tragedy has haunted so many of us. So many of us know someone who has been in the building or affected by this tragedy,” said Francis Suarez, mayor of the city of Miami. “Now not only do we know someone, this is someone that's a member of our family, of our fire family.”

Rescue workers hand debris to one another in the rubble

No tragedy is easy to wrap your head around, but this disaster feels particularly unfathomable. There is no obvious villain. It happened within seconds and at a place many of the missing called home, where you are supposed to be safest. The number of people who vanished, randomly and unexpectedly, is so large that countless intertwined lives, families, and homes have been disrupted. So many prayers and well-wishes and sweat and blood have been put into the response that pulling just one more survivor from the pile would be a miracle, but hope has faded as each day goes by. Still, the search will continue.

“We’re all hurting here,” said Alfredo Landeros, a Surfside resident who has walked near the site daily because he lives nearby. “Something like this kind of puts a black eye on us. We all want to be hopeful, obviously, for all the obvious reasons, but I mean, at the same time, you want to be a realist, and we’re already going on the second week now. It’s tough. … People are just very down.”

On Saturday morning, Marcela Gutierrez biked to pay her respects at the Surfside Wall of Hope and Memorial at 88th and Harding, which sits along a tennis court. The memorial has grown during the week as more visitors, including President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, have stopped to pay their respects. It’s hot, and the skies are so clear that the sun feels like a spotlight on you no matter where you step, but the community has been bracing for a tropical storm. It’s around this time of day that nearby officials are announcing plans to bring down the remains of the tower to avoid the risk that nature might take over the demolition.

Gutierrez’s family was so deeply shaken by the collapse that, newly sensitive to issues at another high-rise building where her mother and sister live, they are scrambling to move her mother to a place they feel is more secure.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” she said. “Those people had no chance. No chance whatsoever.”

Such is the level of discomfort that has settled over the community since they woke up to learn the news of what had happened. The partial collapse was captured in a haunting surveillance video that shows the middle section of the building dissolving downward in a matter of seconds, followed by another section that couldn’t stand on its own. Many in Surfside compare the collapse to 9/11 — the shock and confusion, the dust and smoke, the rubble where there was once structure.

Those first hours were critical, and dozens of survivors escaped the collapse. The response grew quickly. A round-the-clock operation was put in place to do the grueling work of sorting through the pile looking for people. K-9 units arrived to help. First responders from across Florida and other states were brought in to help make up the hundreds of workers on the pile. They were broken up into seven task forces — Zeljkovic is in Task Force 3 — many of them with experience from previous disasters, including 9/11, hurricanes, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. An Israeli rescue team arrived, and a Mexican contingent landed in the area (though a side drama broke out about whether the latter was allowed to help, resulting in people putting up signs protesting on their behalf). Engineers were brought in to assess the risk of further collapse. The danger of the work was highlighted when a rescue worker fell 25 feet as family members visited the site during the first few days.

“It's not just dangerous in the sense that they could get PTSD after the fact. It's just dangerous while on it,” said Juan Pineiro, a Coral Gables, Florida, firefighter paramedic who was in Surfside to provide peer support for responders working on the pile who might need it. “You could slip, you could fall through a hole, you could walk on something and not know what you're walking into.”

A number of small photos of smiling people, their names captioned below each photo

Much of the focus has been, rightly, on the pile itself — but away from it, survivors and the families of the victims and the missing have been waiting desperately for more information. A family assistance center sprang up where kosher food is constantly being cooked and victim advocates are available. Hardship funds were immediately organized, as well as GoFundMe accounts. An unclear number of people have been displaced, not only from the tower itself but also from the neighboring Champlain Towers North, where residents reportedly expressed anxiety after the collapse. On Friday, hundreds of people miles north of the collapse site were also evacuated from Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach, another high-rise condo that was found to be unsafe.

Local groups and nonprofits, as well as national groups like the Red Cross, have helped these people find housing and meet other needs. The Shul, the main synagogue and Jewish community center in the area, is also providing housing, food, and donated supplies to dozens of survivors and families of the missing.

Many are being housed in a condominium across the road from the Shul and are attending daily family briefings at a nearby hotel. As they wait, they are leaning on one another, sharing meals, distracting themselves by the pool, and just talking together about the most difficult topics one could imagine, the Shul’s Rabbi Zalman Lipskar told BuzzFeed News.

“The survivors lost everything,” said Lipskar, pointing out how difficult it is for older people to start completely over again in life. “All their personal goods, their picture albums or furniture, or mementos, or religious items — they're gone.”

The rabbi recounted the descriptions he’s heard of the missing and the dead in the last week: My daughter is light. My daughter is energy. My daughter is positivity. My daughter was a consoling force. My dad was my hero — is my hero. My mom is the one that calls us to talk about nothing for an hour, and I don't have anyone to talk to for an hour.

“I don’t look at the scale,” added Lipskar. “I look at the family individually. Each story is monumental.”

Outside the perimeter of the collapse site, the Surfside community stood at the ready to assist. Many would have picked up buckets and climbed the pile themselves if they had been allowed. Instead they did what they could: gather with friends to just talk it over, provide meals for the responders, drop off yellow flowers for a missing family on their way home from work.

A somber man sits outdoors with his arms resting on a table at the elbows

Since the collapse, more information about possible signs of danger within the building has emerged, including a 2018 report by an engineer that stated the building had “major structural damage” from failed waterproofing underneath the pool deck. The Miami Herald reported photos from a pool contractor showing severe damage to the building’s basement garage, taken just over a day before the building collapsed. Accounts from family members who said their loved ones complained about the lack of maintenance also made clear the building had issues. Lawsuits have already been filed, and investigations into the building collapse will likely go on for years.

But in the immediate physical response, time and the elements moved against the process. Rain made the work that much harder and dangerous. Officials at one point halted the operation for several hours under threat of the rest of the building collapsing.

Personal belongings are being cataloged in case they can be identified by loved ones. Zeljkovic, the rescue worker, said anything obviously identifiable is set aside — photos, anything with a name, mementos that seem important. He recently came across someone’s life insurance policy.

How does anyone grasp the loss of possibly over 140 people in less than 30 seconds? Zeljkovic called it “an astronomical number to try and think about.”

So instead, he doesn’t let himself.

“One at a time,” Zeljkovic said, “until you’re cleared.” ●

Clarissa-Jan Lim and Salvador Hernandez contributed reporting to this story.

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