SURFSIDE, Fla. - A year ago in the middle of the night, a 12-story oceanfront condo building in Surfside, Florida, came down with a thunderous roar, leaving a giant pile of rubble and claiming 98 lives — one of the deadliest collapses in U.S. history.
The disaster at Champlain Towers South also turned into the largest emergency response that didn’t involve a hurricane in Florida history.
Its victims were being honored Friday at events on the ground where, for two weeks last June and July, rescue crews descended from elsewhere in Florida and from as far away as Mexico and Israel to help local teams dig through the pile and search for victims.
Friday’s agenda includes a private overnight gathering for families to light a torch. First Lady Jill Biden is expected to speak at a public event organized by the town of Surfside.
Only two teenagers and a woman survived the fall and were pulled from the rubble, while others escaped from the portion of the building that initially remained standing.
Images of one survivor’s rescue traveled widely, offering a glimmer of hope right after the collapse, but the long, grueling search produced mostly devastating results as families torturously waited only to learn about the remains of their loved ones.
Search-and-rescue teams look for survivors at the Champlain Towers South residential condo on June 29, 2021, in Surfside. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Those missing in the collapse included the 7-year-old daughter of a firefighter who helped in the search, later found dead with her mother, aunt and grandparents; a woman whose cries for help were heard in the early hours but suddenly stopped; and two sisters, 4 and 11, pulled from the rubble, who were so tiny they were buried in the same casket. A 12-year-old girl sat down to pray across the rubble for her physician father, who was ultimately found dead.
The victims included local residents as well as visitors who were Orthodox Jews, Latin Americans, Israelis, Europeans and snowbirds from the Northeast.
The cause of the collapse remains under investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, with the probe entering a new phase this month to cut and drill into concrete and steel. Champlain Towers South had a long history of maintenance problems, and shoddy construction techniques were used in the early 1980s. Other possible factors include sea level rise caused by climate change and damage caused by salt water intrusion.
Pablo Langesfeld, the father of a 26-year-old lawyer who had married and moved to the building a few months before the collapse, said that for him closure will not come until that investigation is completed.
"This is a nightmare that never ends," Langesfeld told The Associated Press.
The site where the building stood has been swept flat.
Although the investigation is expected to take years, a judge approved a compensation settlement topping $1 billion Thursday for the victims.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman praised the dozens of lawyers involved, and a woman who lost her daughter called them heroes in black robes and business suits.
Hanzman said the compensation deal was extraordinary in its scope and speed.
"This settlement is the best we can do. It’s a remarkable result," he said.