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How the Surfside condo collapse has reshaped South Florida, 3 years later

Surfside Collapse: Remembering the victims, 3 years later
Surfside Collapse: Remembering the victims, 3 years later 02:12

MIAMI — Monday marks three years since the Champlain Towers South condominium collapsed in Surfside, killing 98 people and becoming one of the deadliest structural failures in U.S. history.

On Monday morning, Surfside held a memorial service next to the site as part of the annual remembrance.  

Remembrance ceremony held for Surfside condo collapse victims who died three years ago 02:44

Along with public officials and first responders, family members of the victims delivered heartfelt remarks. 

Raquel Oliveira buried her five-year-old son and husband and says she has traveled the world talking to families who have lived through a similar loss. She says it has given her some peace. 

"I think we are all equipped to survive. We all want to live a good life," she said. 

Here is everything that CBS News Miami knows about the Surfside condo collapse, three years later: 

Monday marks three years since the tragedy of the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Surfside, becoming one of the deadliest structural failures in United States history, killing 98 people. CBS News

The night of the Surfside collapse

On June 24, 2021, at 1:22 a.m., Champlain Towers South, once located at 8777 Collins Avenue in the Town of Surfside, partially collapsed.

The 12-story condominium building had 136 units, and 55 were involved in the collapse. Firefighters used truck-mounted ladders to reach people trapped on balconies and pulled 35 people out of the building.

In the early hours of the rescue mission, officials reported that only one person had died and 10 others were injured as fire rescue and technical rescue teams from Miami-Dade and Broward counties responded, cutting off utilities from the site as life-saving efforts continued.

Amid the chaos, a family reunification center was set up down the street for everyone looking for unaccounted and missing relatives. Collins Avenue was also closed off as first responders continued efforts to find and save lives. Soon after, additional road closures were made.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava signed an emergency order to open the door for federal assistance to further help the rescue missions at the collapse site, shortly after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency. At a press conference earlier that day, President Biden addressed the collapse, saying he was ready to provide federal assistance as soon as DeSantis declared the state of emergency.

As that tragic Thursday came to a close, officials said at least one person was confirmed dead and 99 other people were unaccounted for as rescues continued. When Friday came, those numbers changed for the worse.

The days following the Champlain Towers South collapse

On Friday morning, Cava said the death toll had risen to four people and 159 people were unaccounted for.

Additionally, officials identified the first victim of the collapse: Stacie Dawn Fang, 54, who was the mother of the 16-year-old boy who survived. Authorities said Fang was pulled out from the rubble and transported to Aventura Hospital, where she died from her injuries a couple of hours later.

On Saturday, Cava addressed the public again to say that rescue teams will continue working around the clock until everyone is found.

"Our top priority continues to be search and rescue. We continue to have hope," she said. "We are continuing to search, we are looking for people alive in the rubble that is our priority, and our teams have not stopped hour after hour."

Despite the positive outlook, the numbers changed again to five confirmed deaths and 156 people unaccounted for as the search continued into Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday, those numbers changed to nine deaths and 152 unaccounted for. Cava announced that Miami-Dade Police had identified four additional victims: Leon Oliwkowicz, 80; Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74; Luis Andres Bermudez, 26; and, Anna Ortiz, 46.

Later on Sunday, the City of Miami Beach also declared of state of emergency to ensure its eligibility for reimbursement of emergency-related expenditures as it was in close proximity to Surfside. Officials also announced that day the creation of a centralized alert system, which provided updates and access to resources to families and people who were displaced by the collapse.

As the search for survivors continued, memorial walls popped up across Surfside, paying tribute to those who had died and those who were still missing. Out of respect for those impacted by the collapse, Miami Beach and North Bay Village canceled their Fourth of July events. The body of Hilda Noriega, 92, who was the mother of North Bay Village Police Chief Carlos Noriega, was one of the victims recovered from the collapse.

Nearly a week after the collapse and brief stop on search and rescue operations, officials announced that the death had doubled to 18, including two children. At the time, then-Tropical Storm Elsa was moving through the Caribbean, causing concerns among many Florida officials, including DeSantis, who reassured people that the state's Division of Emergency Management would continue working on contingency plans for potential tropical weather impacts.

On that day, Biden arrived in South Florida and delivered remarks after meeting with loved ones impacted, saying that he remained optimistic about the search and rescue missions.

The next day, the death toll rose to 22, and 126 people remained unaccounted for. Following the announcement, Cava signed an executive order to demolish the rest of the unstable structure. Eleven days after the condo collapsed, the remaining part of Champlain Towers South was demolished.

On July 5, 2021, the death toll rose to 28 and the number of people unaccounted for was 117.

After another eight victims were found the following day, the death toll rose to 36. Later that afternoon, Cava said authorities had shifted their operations from search and rescue to search and recovery as the death toll climbed to 54 deaths with 33 of those victims identified. One day later, the death toll grew by an additional 10 victims, now claiming the lives of 64 people.

By day 16 of the recovery mission, the death toll grew to 79 people and 61 remained unaccounted for. At that time, 53 victims were identified by authorities.

On July 10, 2021, the death toll rose to 86 people, 62 of them were identified by officials, and an additional 43 were still unaccounted for. The next day, those numbers changed to 90 deaths, 71 victims identified — including three children — and 31 people unaccounted for.

More grim news came out two days later as the death toll rose again to 94, with 83 of those victims identified. The weather at the time impacted recovery efforts throughout the days as rescue officials worked tirelessly to continue finding everyone. The day after, officials announced another victim was found and the death toll grew to 95 people and 85 of the victims were identified.

Victims were still being identified a month into the Surfside collapse

As crews neared the end of the search nearly three weeks after the collapse, 97 victims had been recovered and 8 people were potentially unaccounted for. Another prominent victim found in the rubble was Theresa Velasquez, 36, who was a Los Angeles-based executive at Live Nation, who was visiting her parents Julio, 67, and Angela, 60. They also died in the collapse.

Nearly a month after the collapse, the 96th and 97th victims were identified as Anastasiya Gromova, 24, and Linda March, 58.

On July 26, 2021 — over a month after the collapse — the last victim was identified by officials. Estelle Hedaya, 54, had finally been found when she was removed from the rubble. Her brother Ikey, who lives in New York, told CBS News Miami that New York City Police officers came to his home to inform him about his sister.

Nearly a year after the collapse, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue review memo stated that first responders did everything they could to rescue everyone despite not having the necessary equipment to save some of them, such as Velasquez, whose voice was allegedly heard in the rubble before crews were able to find her.

One by one: all the victims of the Surfside condo collapse

Ninety-eight lives were lost on June 24, 2021:

  1. Stacie Dawn Fang, 54
  2. Antonio Lozano, 83
  3. Gladys Lozano, 79
  4. Manuel LaFont, 54
  5. Luis Bermudez, 26
  6. Marcus Joseph Guara, 52
  7. Leon Oliwkowicz, 80
  8. Ana Ortiz, 46
  9. Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74
  10. Michael David Altman, 50
  11. Frank Kleiman, 55
  12. Hilda Noriega, 92
  13. Magaly Elena Delgado, 80
  14. Bonnie Epstein, 56
  15. Andreas Giannitsopoulos, 21
  16. Emma Guara, 4
  17. Lucia Guara, 11
  18. Anaely Rodriguez, 42
  19. Claudio Bonnefoy, 85
  20. Maria Obias-Bonnefoy, 69
  21. Graciela Cattarossi, 48
  22. David Epstein, 58
  23. N/A, 7 (At the family's request)
  24. Gonzalo Torre, 81
  25. Ingrid Ainsworth, 66
  26. Tzvi Ainsworth, 68
  27. Elena Blasser, 64
  28. Andrea Cattarossi, 56
  29. Francis Fernandez, 67
  30. Jay Kleiman, 52
  31. Nancy Kress Levin, 76
  32. Linda March, 58
  33. Richard Augustine, 77
  34. Graciela Cattarossi, 86
  35. Gino Cattarossi, 89
  36. Elena Chavez, 87
  37. Aishani Gia Patel, 1
  38. Bhavna Patel, 36
  39. Vishai Patel, 42
  40. Elaine Lia Sabino, 71
  41. Simon Segal, 80
  42. Marina Restrepo Azen, 76
  43. Deborah Berezdivin, 21
  44. Brad Cohen, 51
  45. Gary Cohen, 58
  46. Nicole Langesfeld, 26
  47. Gloria Machado, 71
  48. Ruslan Manashirov, 36
  49. Ana Mora, 70
  50. Juan Alberto Mora, 80
  51. Juan Alberto Mora Jr., 32
  52. Ilan Naibryf, 21
  53. Alexia Maria Pettengill Lopez Moreira, 9
  54. Anna Sophia Pettengill Lopez Moreira, 6
  55. Luis Vicente Pettengill Lopez Moreira III, 3
  56. Luis Pettengill, 36
  57. Harold Rosenberg, 52
  58. Maria Teresa Rovirosa, 58
  59. Luis Sadovnic, 28
  60. Leidy Vanessa Luna Villalba, 23
  61. Maria Gabriela Camou, 64
  62. Edgar Gonzalez, 42
  63. Beatriz Rodriguez Guerra, 52
  64. Oresme Gil Guerra, 60
  65. Alfredo Leone, 48
  66. Lorenzo De Oliveira Leone, 5
  67. Sophia Lopez Moreira, 36
  68. Fabian Nunez, 57
  69. Miguel Pazos, 55
  70. Richard Rovirosa, 60
  71. Maria Torre, 76
  72. Angela Velasquez, 60
  73. Theresa Velasquez, 36
  74. Benny Weisz, 31
  75. N/A, 5 (At the family's request)
  76. N/A, 44 (At the family's request)
  77. Nicole Dawn Doran, 43
  78. Miguel Leonardo Kaufman, 65
  79. Arnold Notkin, 87
  80. Maria Notkin, 81
  81. Michelle Anna Pazos, 23
  82. Maria Popa, 79
  83. Mihai Radulescu, 82
  84. Lisa Rosenberg, 27
  85. Judith Spiegel, 65
  86. Julio Cesar Velasquez, 66
  87. Margarita Vasquez Bello, 68
  88. Catalina Gomez Ramirez, 45
  89. Rosa Saez, 70
  90. Cassie Billedeau Stratton, 40
  91. Luis F. Barth Tobar, 51
  92. Valeria Barth, 14
  93. Moises Rodan Brief, 28
  94. Andres Levine, 26
  95. Mercedes Fuentes Urgelles, 61
  96. Raymond Urgelles, 61
  97. Anastasiya Gromova, 24
  98. Estelle Hedaya, 47

Remembering the Surfside condo collapse victims

On Dec. 12, 2021, divers at Neptune Memorial Reef installed a memorial plaque on Sunday afternoon to honor the 98 victims.

At his first special commission meeting in March 2022, then-mayor Shlomo Danzinger worked on making a permanent memorial for the victims a priority during his term at an event marking the one-year commemoration of the tragedy. That memorial was presented to the public on May 12, 2022.

At the commemoration event to mark one year since the tragedy, first lady Jill Biden visited Surfside to pay her respects to the victims' families and survivors of the collapse while she was touring a federally qualified health center in Palm Beach County as part of the Biden administration's "Cancer Moonshot" initiative.

On Aug. 4, 2022, Surfside renamed a portion of Collins Avenue as 98 Points of Light Way in a special tribute to the 98 lives lost.

Town of Surfside honors condo collapse victims with street renaming. CBS4

Why did Champlain Towers South in Surfside collapse?

When the condo collapsed, people immediately began to question why it crumbled in the first place.

Built in 1981, the Champlain Towers South condominium was erected before Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida and it seemed to have no structural failure from that storm, so many wondered what went wrong.

Paul Danforth, a senior engineer and the Vice President of Corporate at Universal Engineering, told CBS News Miami in 2021 that the cause of the collapse would need a structural and forensic investigation to pinpoint what happened.

Danforth explained that there is always a consideration when designing a building given to potential safeguards against failures seen at Surfside. However, once a failure happens, gravity is in control.

"Once a failure occurs and gravity takes over, it just continues to increase load as the failure continues to evolve," he said.

Florida lawmakers have yet to file legislation that would address the most serious lessons learned from the June collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Miami Herald

At the time of the collapse, Champlain Towers South was due for what is called a "40-year inspection," as older buildings along the coast take beatings from the environment and need to be constantly maintained. The review process to occur after four decades was started after the DEA's Miami field office collapsed on Aug. 5, 1974, which killed seven people.

Ken Direktor, the attorney for the Surfside condo, told CBS News Miami's Jim DeFede that the building had begun its inspection review process and that they had identified some issues with the buildings and even hired contractors to fix them. Unfortunately, the building collapsed before they could address those issues.

In response to CBS News Miami's public records request, Surfside posted documents related to Champlain Towers South in the late hours of June 25, 2021, which included a preliminary 40-year inspection report. Two days later, the town posted additional documents, which showed that the building had serious concrete problems three years before the collapse and a report that contained photos showing cracks on the building and missing pieces of concrete.

Four months after the collapse, a coalition of engineers and architects argued that Florida should consider requiring high-rises built near the coast to undergo safety inspections every 20 years with follow-ups every 7 years instead of the traditional 40-year review.

According to emails obtained from Morabito Consultants, an engineering firm, the estimated cost of repairs to the condo building would have cost over $9 million.

As Champlain Towers South went under the inspection process, what some people didn't know was at the time, the building was already sinking.

Dr. Shimon Wdowinski from the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University, was studying the subsidence of Miami Beach, which is the movement of the surface downward. His study included Surfside and specifically the condo.

In an interview with CBS News Miami, Wdowinski said that the condo's sinkage was "unusual" because Surfside had a lot of limestone underneath it, which offers more support than other rocks and minerals.

"In this particular case, we saw subsidence over there," he said. "We reported about it."

But in January 2023, Surfside's hired forensic engineer Allyn Kilsheimer said that he was "90% sure" that the geological conditions under and around the Champlain Towers South were not a contributing factor to its collapse.

As the search for survivors continued on July 6, 2021, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett called for investigations into the condo's sister building — Champlain Towers North — and other large buildings in town to look for structural reviews.

"We're going to do everything that we can to look at those structural systems, including ground-penetrating radar, the columns, the beams, the slabs, and try to get our arms around what may be happening, what did happen," he said. "Like I said, we have some concerns, some deep concerns, about that building, especially given we don't know what has happened."

On July 7, 2021, Gov. DeSantis said during a Tropical Storm Elsa update that he believed the collapse was an isolated incident and not a sign of widespread issues across the state that could impact the real estate market.

"I think this building had problems from the start; let's just put it that way," he said at the time. "So I wouldn't jump to conclusions about it."

Two months later, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced it would begin its five-pronged investigation into the collapse. Additionally, the NIST released a video that showed evidence of extensive corrosion and overcrowded concrete reinforcement in the Champlain Towers South's infrastructure.

Judith Mitrani-Reiser, who grew up in Miami and the Materials and Structural Systems division associate chief in the NIST's Engineering Laboratory, leads the investigation.

In a "60 Minutes Overtime" feature, correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi spoke with investigators who believe that the answer is still hidden somewhere within the 800 tons of building remnants taken from the collapse site and held in a Miami warehouse. But, federal investigators are still left with questions.  

Nearly a year after the collapse, the NIST walked through the $22 million investigation, which included developing a model of the collapse, characterizing the subsurface of the property, and investigating groundwater conditions and changes due to climate change.

In a shocking update to its investigation, the NIST found that the condo's swimming pool deck failed to comply with original building codes and standards. Though it was not determined to be the official cause of the collapse, the agency continued its investigation with that detail in mind.

The NIST expects to finalize its probe into the collapse by June 2025.

New details emerge in investigation of Surfside condo collapse 02:44

Families seek justice for the 98 victims

As the community sought answers for why the condo collapsed and the death toll climbed, several lawsuits were filed by victims' families, including criminal and civil investigations, with legal fees and costs estimated to reach $100 million.

"The whole world wants to know what happened here," Mayor Cava said at the time. Everyone, she said, wants to know "what could have been prevented and how we make sure it never happens again."

On July 14, 2021, a judge approved the sale of the property where the condo stood to compensate the victims' families.

"This is obviously a case where there is no amount of money that could possibly be available to compensate these families for their suffering and their loss," said Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman. "Well, there's no amount of money in the world that could do that."

Though many said a memorial to the victims should be built on the land, Hanzman said the sale would benefit their families instead and that their memorial could be built at a nearby park. At one point, there was discussion that even a community center would be built upon the site. Despite hours of heated debate and protest, Surfside commissioners approved a controversial plan to build a 52-unit luxury condominium on the collapse site.

One of the lawsuits was filed by Enrique Arango, a Miami firefighter whose 7-year-old daughter died in the collapse, who sued the Champlain Towers South condo association and a slew of other defendants for her wrongful death. In the filing, Arango's representatives claimed that the defendants were so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a "conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, and rights of persons."

At a hearing on the future site of the collapse, Hanzman was informed that there was an interested buyer in the property. Michael Faye, who had been appointed to work on the real estate deal, was instructed by the judge to negotiate the sale of the land, which an unknown company reportedly wanted to spend between $110 and $120 million.

On Sept. 30, 2021, Hanzman approved the $120 million sale agreement of the site to East Oceanside Development while it was still on the auction block. The collapse site officially hit the auction block on May 24, 2022. The collapse site was officially sold to the Dubai-based developer DAMAC Properties for that $120 million price tag.

On Sept. 1, 2021, another hearing announced that $49 million would be split amongst the victims and their families as they continued to discuss the future of the collapse site. In March 2022, the victims' families agreed to a $55 million tentative settlement.

In the midst of 2021's legal hearings, four people were arrested and charged for allegedly stealing the identities of victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside.

On Oct. 6, 2021, Hanzman ruled that a mediator would be assigned to go through the claims from the collapse, who was expected to help reach an agreement on the distribution of money from the planned sale of the condo site. Later that month, Hanzman pushed for compromise on potential payouts to victims and their families, urging all involved parties to continue talking out how to best honor the 98 killed.

While the families' compensation was still being determined in court, Hanzman ruled that those who owned units at the condo will divide $83 million for property losses. That settlement eventually bumped up to $96 million.

On Nov. 17, 2021, victims and their families filed another lawsuit that claimed the construction of the adjacent Eighty Seven Park tower damaged and destabilized the Champlain Towers South building, leading to its collapse.

By the end of 2021, Hanzman announced that the various lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims and their families will likely go to trial in summer 2022, saying that the time frame would be either July or August.

"I'm not granting extensions or continuances. Not in this case," he said. "Come next summer, we're going to be picking a jury in this case. It's not going to go beyond that."

One of those lawsuits went to trial in March 2023.

On May 11, 2022, a $997 million settlement was reached in a class-action lawsuit over the collapse, where all the money was determined to be divided among victims' families and survivors. However, attorney Stuart Grossman who was part of the negotiations, said it will never undo the loss of lives from the tragic event.

"This money is meant to compensate parents, children, husbands, and wives who lost loved ones in this disaster," he said at the time. "For their mental grief, for their mental pain, and suffering and it isn't probably not even going to be enough to do that."

$1 billion settlement for Surfside collapse victims 03:00

The total settlement eventually bumped up to about $1.02 billion. That settlement was approved on June 23, 2022 — one day before the one-year mark of the tragedy.

Later on, another $2 million from an insurance settlement went to the survivors and victims' families.

Amid the settlement distribution, hundreds of bogus claims tried to get a share of over $1 billion designated for those directly impacted by the collapse, where they appeared to be "seeking to wrongfully capitalize on this tragedy at the expense of true victims," court-appointed receiver Michael Goldberg said in court documents obtained by CBS News Miami in August 2022.

Florida lawmakers take action

About two weeks after the collapse, Florida House Representative Paul Renner said at the time that lawmakers didn't need to make immediate changes to state building codes. However, he did point to the Champlain Towers South condo association's inability to quickly address the safety and structural repairs that were needed before the collapse.

"If we need to strengthen that and make that clear, we can certainly do that," Renner said.

On July 7, 2021, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced that a grand jury would dive into ways to prevent future disasters like the Champlain Towers South collapse, pointing out how the SAO sought grand juries to look into building code issues that rose after Hurricane Andrew swept through in 1992.

"As a community, we remain shaken and horrified by the immense loss of life and the sheer destruction caused by the collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium building," she said in a prepared statement.

On Dec. 15, 2021, the grand jury released its report, detailing four key findings that showed steps that should have been taken in a timely manner to make sure the building was structurally sound, including revising the Florida Condominium Act.

Martin Langesfeld, who lost his sister Nicole and his brother-in-law in the collapse, testified in front of the Florida Senate on Nov. 30, 2021, against a bill that would lower the amount of time to file lawsuits over building defects. A few months after testifying, he and his son ran in the Miami Marathon in honor of his sister and her husband.

"Senate Bill 736 is proposing the opposite of what needs to be done after such an unimaginable event," he said at the time.

The bill died in returning messages on March 14, 2022.

Another bill (HB 7069) was passed by the Florida Legislature in February 2022, which would lead to new inspection requirements for condos, including that buildings with three stories or higher must receive initial inspections 30 years after occupancy with the threshold at 25 years for buildings within three miles of coastlines. A year later, DeSantis signed a new bill that revised the 2022 law, which would now require buildings to go through reviews every 10 years after initial inspections.

At the start of 2022, the Florida Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously backed a measure that was designed to strengthen the long-term health of buildings following the prior year's collapse. A month later, the Miami-Dade County Commission approved a new law that required condo and homeowner associations to make financial statements and structural safety reports public.

In April 2022, Florida congressional Democrats called on DeSantis to put condominium reform on the 2022 Legislative Session agenda. South Florida Democratic leaders even joined forces with the victims' families to call upon state lawmakers to make sure it gets on the agenda.

DeSantis received criticism for not doing enough during the session, especially when a bill that would have sweeping reforms died when State Rep. Danny Perez and State Sen. Jennifer Bradley could work out differences in their respective bills.

In May 2022, Florida Senate Bill 4D was signed into law, which requires structural inspections and more money to be set aside to make potential repairs on condos with the goal to make buildings safer. However, some argued that the law came at a cost, meaning that some people, especially retirees who live on fixed incomes, would have trouble affording their homes.

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