Florida residents erect wall of the missing after condo falls
Amid the rubble, a Winnie the Pooh plush toy wearing a red shirt with “Baby’s first teddy bear” written on its side lay on its side, wedged between jagged pieces of concrete and shards of metal.
A rescuer looking for survivors in the debris of the South Champlain towers picked it up and dusted it off. Later, a group of firefighters walked a block behind the collapsed 13-story condo, past the tennis courts that had turned into a makeshift base camp for rescuers, to gently place the bear and other toys under a chain-link fence adorned with pictures of those who remain under the rubble.
The Wall of the Missing has become a key landmark in Surfside, a small Florida beach town northeast of Miami. Makeshift memorial for those who lived in the tower which suddenly fell in the middle of the night last week, it has become a place to pay homage to those who have yet to be found but who may not have died.
It is also, for many, a place to keep faith that at least some of the 145 people missing may be alive. Six days after the collapse of the Champlain condominium, the death toll had reached 18.
“The two are still here,” Mario Gonzalez, 65, said Wednesday morning as he laid down a bouquet of flowers for his longtime friend Oresme Gil Guerra, with whom he grew up in Cuba, and his wife, Betty Guerra. The couple had been living in the tower for a few months.
“We want to see them, but we have to wait,” Gonzalez said, looking at the ruins of the tower. “God has the last word. “
Thousands of people from across the Miami area have flocked to the wall in recent days, enduring sweltering summer heat and torrential tropical storms, to weave fresh flowers in the chain-link fence, drape rosaries over photos and jot down messages to the missing.
“We couldn’t keep that out of our minds,” said Maria Noble, a 71-year-old retired Surfside resident, as she stood outside the memorial with her daughter, Madeline, and wiped a tear away. .
“The wait, the fact of not knowing…” she said. “It is so hard.”
The memorial was erected on Friday by Leo Soto, a 26-year-old hospitality student at Florida International University.
At 4 a.m., he found himself unable to sleep. Her former high school friend Nicole “Nicky” Langesfeld, who lived in the tower with her husband, Louis Sadovnic, was missing.
“They had just got married,” he said. “She was a beautiful girl. I remember his smile perfectly.
Soto also couldn’t stop thinking about a young man he had heard about in media reports as suffering from muscular dystrophy: Luis Bermudez. Family members had said Bermudez couldn’t walk or cry for help, details that haunted Soto. He hoped Bermudez’s mother, Ana Ortiz, had been able to tell him that she loved him.
After scouring the internet for pictures of the missing, Soto printed a few dozen sheets of paper with photos of the missing and called grocery stores and florists, asking them to donate flowers.
In the afternoon, he was standing on Harding Street behind the tower, taping paper to the chain-link fence around the Surfside Tennis Center.
“LAST VIEW IN UNIT 1210: ELAINE SABINO,” said a note. “FADED AWAY”
“Lorenzo and his father Alfredo Leone,” said another. “FADED AWAY”
Soto surrounded the images with yellow sunflowers and pink and white roses. Below he lined up a row of Our Glass prayer of the Lady of Guadalupe candles.
As tropical thunderstorms hit, a couple who lived near the memorial offered to use their laminating machine to protect the photos.
Gradually, the chain link fence turned into a riot of blue and green hydrangeas, purple orchids, red and white roses, pink carnations, yellow sunflowers, green eucalyptus and palm leaves.
Some who came to the wall knelt down to pray and light candles. Others have left a seashell, a prayer box, a child’s pencil drawing.
Handwritten religious messages were scribbled in English and Spanish. “Find them Lord! Read a note scribbled on a post-it.
“Jesus is in El Salvador. Rested there hope in elsomeone wrote on a sheet of paper covered with plastic.
Other notes were sent directly to relatives:
“We hope for a miracle! Stay strong amiga❤️.“
“ESTELLE stays strong and goes home.”
“Arnie and Miriam Notkin. We love you so much. “
Others paid tribute to the rescuers who slept in the canvas rescue tents that had been set up inside the tennis courts. Right behind the memorial wall, their soaked pants, long-sleeved T-shirts and helmets hung on the tennis net.
“Thank you for sacrificing yourself to help others,” someone wrote in the red marker. “You work so hard every day to help others. “
At least one rescuer responded to the community.
“You are our neighbors. You are our friends. You are our family, ”reads a note on a Miami-Dade Fire Department t-shirt pinned to the wall. “We know you are in pain. We also suffer. We can’t show it yet.
Rescue teams from Florida, Mexico and Israel have been working grueling 12-hour shifts over the past week, removing 3 million pounds of concrete from the pile.
Amidst the devastation, some took the time to collect personal items. On Saturday, Soto remained silent as a group of Miami-Dade firefighters made their way to the wall and dropped dusty toys in the rubble.
Among the items that were placed on the wall: A blue and orange plastic Nerf pistol. A stuffed, tattered, charred green leapfrog with a hole in the leg. A Nike football. A unicorn backpack. A Hess flatbed truck.
For a short period of the weekend, the public could not make it to the memorial. Frustrated community members were turned away from the site on Saturday evening as police blocked streets around the disaster site.
The next day, Soto approach Governor Ron DeSantis and other officials urging them to open public access to the memorial.
“It has become almost a sacred place for the community,” he said. “It was the only place where there was love in the air all the time at all times.”
Eventually, the memorial was reopened to the public and on Wednesday TV crews descended on the wall as Miami Heat basketball team captain Udonis Haslem surrendered to hang a wreath and doodle a message.
Soto said he no longer felt overwhelmed with grief and discouragement as he watched the community come together.
“I’ve seen people I don’t know kissing, crying with each other,” he said. “The way they bonded here, I don’t think this community will ever be the same. “
As dusk fell on Wednesday night, a woman leaned into the drizzle to light a tea light. A man put his arms around her and hugged her tight. Together, they walked slowly along the memorial and looked at the faces of the missing.