SURFSIDE — "Survived
It’s a staple in obituaries, the start of a straightforward sentence listing the deceased’s family members.
In the stream of obituaries that have been coming ever since a Florida condo collapsed on June 24, these simple sentences tell quite a story. Those who died are survived by family all over the world, from New York to Seattle, Cuba to Costa Rica, Russia to Venezuela.
Even though Surfside is a piece of one of America’s largest metropolitan areas, in many ways it’s a small town, located in the middle of a long, densely populated strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay.
To the south, in trendy Miami Beach, buildings routinely reach nearly 50 stories tall. To the north, in ritzy Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles, the coast is lined with even taller, shinier towers — and there are plans to add the tallest beachfront building in America, a Bentley Residences that will rise 749 feet above the current sea level and contain more than 60 stories.
In between, there is this one-mile gap in the skyline of Miami’s barrier islands, a place where the beachfront buildings are limited to 12 stories.
This is Surfside.
That’s one of the many cruel ironies of this disaster. If Surfside was known for something before June 24 — and in many ways, it remained somewhat of a well-kept secret — it was that its high-rises weren’t nearly as high.
And when you go inland between 88th and 96th streets — away from the beachfront dominated by the hotel that was the historic Surf Club and now is a Four Seasons — it’s not just that the buildings there are limited to four stories. It’s that, at least by Florida coastal standards, many of the homes are still modest, the businesses still mostly mom-and-pop.
While a Starbucks and Subway have crept into the two blocks of shops on Harding Avenue, the street is lined with local places like the Kosherland supermarket, the Rolling Pin bakery, Justin’s Barbershop and Josh’s Deli.
There are six synagogues within walking distance. The community center, already a gathering spot in normal times, was transformed into a family reunification center after the collapse.
“This is a very small town — the kind of place where if you don’t know me, then your friend knows me,” Joshua Marcus, the 47-year-old owner of Josh’s Deli, said one morning while cooking breakfast. “So this is kind of like if a fire happened at the church in ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”
He doesn’t add — doesn’t have to — that if the fire didn’t kill someone you know, it killed someone your friend or neighbor or regular customer knows.
Surfside’s population in the last census was 5,744 people.
When the condo fell and more than 100 people were lost, it meant that about 2% of the town’s population was gone. One in 50, overnight.
From a purely statistical standpoint, this would be like Oklahoma City’s residents waking up and finding out they had lost more than 12,000 neighbors. It would be like Manhattan, with a population of about 1.6 million, losing more than 30,000 residents in one night.
But statistics — heights of buildings, number of residents, even the rising death toll — don’t really tell the story of the Surfside collapse. They don’t tell you how this has affected the 49 out of 50 who remain, the town and the people who are the survivors.
What was missing
Shortly after the collapse, Marcus and his small staff at Josh’s Deli began making sandwiches and delivering them to the first responders working at the pile of rubble in the sweltering July heat.
The first time they did it, he says none of them was the same for days.
The part that got to him wasn’t what you might think. It wasn’t seeing a body. It was seeing a balcony, the sliding glass doors open, curtains flapping, two empty chairs facing each other.
“My business partner and my server got drunk that night,” he said. “I don’t blame them. I don’t drink. So I ate a whole cake.”
He has a very Miami story. He grew up in New York, moved to South Florida, met a Cuban girl from Hialeah, and had a daughter, Gala, who now is 3.
He opened the deli 12 years ago in this small space, with 22 seats inside and about a half-dozen on the sidewalk. The walls are covered with a mix of eclectic art, old family photos and totems for good luck. He wants it to feel like his living room.
When he’s here, though, he typically can be found at the grill. Customers take a seat at the counter and chat with him while he works, wearing an apron and a mask. A bumper sticker on the stainless steel above them says “I (HEART) SURFSIDE.” Taped next to it, a piece of Israeli currency has an added handwritten message:
“Shalom or Go Home!”
He makes a “Jewban” sandwich — a Cuban with pastrami instead of ham — for a lunch customer and explains that the deli didn't stop making and delivering sandwiches to the condo site after that first experience. At this point, they had delivered more than 600 sandwiches. He roasts the turkey himself. He buys some ham. He’s Jewish and doesn’t normally make sandwiches with pork. But he knows some of the first responders appreciate it.
When police come in, he doesn't let them pay — even though this has been a brutal year for many businesses here, including his.
They just were starting to get back to a bit of normalcy after COVID-19. Ever since the collapse, a stretch of Collins Avenue, the northbound street nearest to the ocean, has been closed, and a stretch of Harding Avenue has a temporary barrier running down its middle, turning three southbound lanes into one lane heading each direction.
The resulting gridlock has led customers to steer clear of Harding, and has been another blow to businesses.
A regular plops down onto one of the chairs at Josh’s counter, orders a sandwich and matter-of-factly says he’s going out of business soon.
Businesses take another hit
They lament about how tough it has been, how the potential loans aren’t really much of a help — but then both say it’s hard to complain when there’s a pile of rubble less than a mile away.
A friend started a GoFundMe page for Josh’s Deli and it raised more than the $5,000 goal in less than 24 hours. Just talking about this makes his eyes well up.
“There are no words,” he says. “Compound that with everything else and it’s all too much. It’s like an emotion shower.”
Across the street from the deli, next to a small cigar shop that has been there for decades, owned by a family that escaped Cuba, there’s a door that says “Mario the Tailor.”
Walk up the stairs, open another door and you’ll find Mario busy at work.
Mario Vita and his wife, Angie, were born in Italy and ended up meeting in Canada. They moved to Surfside nearly 40 years ago, buying Verdile’s, a tailor shop that already had been in business for 20 years.
Not far from a black-and-white photo of Mario as a 10-year-old boy, an apprentice in Italy, there are photos of him as an adult, now in his 70s, standing next to some of his handiwork being worn by Julio Iglesias, LeBron James and Dan Marino.
The Bal Harbour Shops, which has been described as “the most luxurious mall in America,” are located just north of Surfside. Some of the clothing stores send their famous customers here. Sometimes those customers want the Vitas to come to them.
Angie Vita recalls when they were asked to go to Ricky Martin’s house. She smiles and says she made sure to help with that one.
Connections to those lost is haunting, but not unusual, it's the norm
Most of their clients you wouldn’t
recognize. But the Vitas know their names and faces — and
seeing a picture of Nancy Kress Levin appear on television
felt surreal, like it couldn’t be right.
Levin had been in the shop not all that long ago. She was telling Mario about her hearing aid. He didn’t want to get one. She showed him how small hers was.
Levin lived in Unit 712 in Champlain South. One of her sons was staying with her. He had come from Puerto Rico to attend the funeral of a friend. Another son lived on the same floor with his wife and her son. All five were lost in the collapse. So was Cassondra Stratton.
The 40-year-old model and Pilates instructor dropped off some clothes at the shop a few days before the collapse, about the time her husband left for a business trip. Stratton was on the phone with him when the building crumbled. The line went dead and she had been listed as missing until Monday, when authorities announced they had identified her body.
“Such a sweet girl,” Angie Vita said. “It’s just terrible.”
Her clothes are still there, ready to be picked up.
This story, this haunting connection, is hardly unusual. It’s the norm. Everyone in Surfside has all kinds of them.
Some of them take a seat at the counter in Josh’s Deli and talk to Josh as he works. These days he isn’t just making food that was featured on a couple of television shows, drawing visitors staying at nearby hotels. He’s providing therapy to the regulars. And he isn’t trained to do this. None of them are, he says. But they’re all trying.
“It’s getting more and more difficult for me to hear all the stories,” he said. “The amount of times I’ve talked to someone like this and just wanted to cry …”
His voice trailed off. He continued, saying this isn’t like 9/11. There isn’t the common enemy.
Locals have 'the community'
“It’s this weird dynamic,” he said. “George Bush isn’t throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. The fans aren't chanting ‘U-S-A’ to unify people. It’s just different. I lived in New York then. When Derek Jeter hit that home run, people lost their (expletive) minds because it was so emotional.”
He’s quick to say that the support for Surfside has been overwhelming. It has come from all over the world, in ways that are big and small.
But even here in South Florida, if you leave Surfside, you can feel the story starting to fade. He doesn’t expect faraway places to have flyovers and yellow ribbons for Surfside. He does expect Surfside to continue to rally around itself.
“The thing we have here is the community,” he said.
While many Surfside residents grew up someplace else, Tina Paul was born in Miami Beach and six months later her parents bought a home here.
Her childhood home, and many others in the 1960s, didn’t have air-conditioning. They were cooled by the breeze blowing off the ocean and through their jalousie windows. When it got really hot in the summer, they hopped in the pool at the old community center.
Paul remembers her father saying they had to get air-conditioning when the condos started going up, blocking that breeze.
She headed to New York in 1980 to study photography. She made that her career and made New York her home, using her camera to document the city’s nightlife. After 20 years there, she was thinking about moving back to Surfside. One day in 2001 changed her thinking.
“After Sept. 11, I didn’t want to leave New York,” she said. “I felt this solidarity with the city and an obligation to stay.”
Now her solidarity and obligation are with her hometown.
She and her longtime partner moved back here 10 years ago to care for her ailing parents. That’s when she really started to notice both how unique the town was — and how it was changing.
Paul got involved with historical preservation. She started going to town meetings. She ran for office in 2016 and was elected to the five-member town commission. Now she is vice mayor.
Still a night owl, she was awake at 2:10 a.m. on June 24 when the phone rang. It was Town Manager Andy Hyatt calling to tell her what had happened. She ended up being awake for more than 40 straight hours. The weeks since have been a blur.
“I try to just keep going,” she said during a phone conversation after midnight, at the end of a recent day. “I’m feeling stronger today. But the other day, I spoke with a reporter, I answered all of his questions and then he looked me in the eye and said, ‘How are you doing?’ I almost broke down. I said, ‘I can’t go there. That’s when I would lose it. I need to be strong for the community.’”
When she was growing up, she didn’t give her community much thought. She used to tell people she was from Miami Beach “because nobody knew where Surfside was.”
In the 1970s, she found those neighboring towns — from Miami Beach with its art deco to Sunny Isles with its wonderfully kitschy-themed beach motels — to be more interesting than the place where she grew up.
While the Sahara Beach Club remains in Sunny Isles, its camel figures out front, most of those kitschy hotels are long gone, replaced by towering buildings like the Trump Palace.
And now Paul finds Surfside more interesting.
As she and her neighbors continue to grieve and try to cope with what happened, she hopes that what happened June 24 will lead to changes in the future — and not necessarily the kind of changes South Florida has seen in the last 40 years.
“In Surfside, we already were trying to be pioneers of a lot of environmental initiatives,” she said. “I feel that now we have to be on the forefront on the reform of regulation of buildings, what is allowed to be built and where it is allowed to be built … We need to figure out what caused this, because it’s not just poor maintenance of a building.”
Priest asked: 'Was it empty?'
Juan Sosa came to South Florida from Cuba
60 years ago, when he was 14 years old. His parents sent him
and his sister to America as part of Operation Peter Pan, a
mass exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors shortly
after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
He became a Catholic priest.
About 10 years ago Sosa came to St. Joseph Church, a parish that does services in four languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish) and has a parking lot straddling the line between Miami Beach and Surfside — just three blocks inland from Champlain Towers South.
He begins most days by taking a walk on the beach, typically passing the condo on his way to the sunrise and sand.
On June 24, he didn’t hear the building collapse in the night. But as he started walking, he heard sirens. And he kept hearing them. Police were blocking off streets. He ended up on the beach with some other parishioners, looking at a building that had 55 of its 136 units sheared away.
“Was it empty?” he asked them.
No, they told him.
Sosa said a prayer, the first of many to come, for the victims and for the survivors.
Nothing prepared him for this. Five days after the collapse, he wrote a piece for the archdiocese that began, “For this experience, there is no specific training in the Seminary.”
The next week he started leading funerals. One of the first services involved three caskets for one family — two for Marcus Guara and Anaely Rodriguez and one for their two daughters. Family members decided to have Lucia, 11, and Emma, 4, buried together, in a small white casket with pink and purple ribbons, the girls’ favorite colors.
The morning after that funeral, sitting in his office at the parish, Sosa talked about what he said at the service — or, perhaps more significantly, what he won’t be saying at any of the services for those who died in the collapse.
“This whole idea of ‘Oh, it's God's will and it was written somewhere that they had to die …,” he said. “God does not will this. I think this is a result of human imperfection. Why God permitted it, that’s a mystery.”
He added a rhetorical question — one he has asked repeatedly since the collapse.
“Does it take a tragedy to bring people together?” he said. “My hope is that we learn from this experience, not just about the material things such as how to fix a building, or how to prevent it from collapsing, or not even how to live without the stuff we have. But we learn about the quality of life.”
Asked how he is doing, he paused for a moment to think about how to answer that.
“I don’t know how to put it,” he said. “Am I in a state of shock or the state of service?”
It seems clear that for many in Surfside the answer to that question is both. They remain in a state of shock. And yet they also remain in the state of service, making sandwiches, coordinating city efforts, raising money, saying prayers, mourning those who are gone, comforting those who are still here.
Music for the soul
It was being in a crowd, listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, that got to Rabbi Fred Klein.
He was sitting there in Temple Emanu-El, about six miles south of Surfside in Miami Beach. It was Thursday night, two weeks after the collapse. The day before officials had held an emotional press conference near the site, saying they had transitioned from search and rescue to search and recovery.
This event, an interfaith musical gathering titled “Console the Soul: Prayers for Surfside,” was partly to raise money for victims and families. But it also was to help those who gathered in the huge rotunda of the synagogue.
Outside, life felt fairly normal. Well, normal for South Beach. Young men and women were dressed for a night on the town. People sat at tables outside restaurants, the scent of all kinds of food wafting through the air. When a crosswalk signal turned green, a rollerblader cut through the middle of the intersection, punctuating his crossing with a dramatic spin.
Inside, people lit candles, prayed and listened to music led by Michael Rossi, artistic director and founder of the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival.
Klein, a chaplain for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, was one of the faith leaders asked to speak between songs. The federation has raised nearly $2 million to help all the families affected by the loss of belongings and life. Klein and other chaplains took turns being available to console, counsel, and simply listen.
He got on the stage after the orchestra played the Adagietto slow movement of Mahler's Fifth, a piece for strings and harp that has been described as “an island of calm in the seething tumult of the Fifth Symphony.”
“This event ... happened after a hellish year,” he told those gathered. “All of us have been traumatized in different ways from this past year. Of COVID, of being alone, of not having the gift of music. And I found myself welling up in tears listening to Mahler.”
As he spoke, thanking the musicians, his voice cracked.
He moved after about a year. And when he saw the images the morning after the collapse, at first it felt confusing, like a picture that didn’t add up. Then he started to realize what he was seeing.
Right before the musical event, he spent about an hour with an 80-year-old woman who escaped the building. She’s a survivor. But, he says, so are many others.
“I think that building collapsing, the floor falling out, is something all of us, in some way or another, experienced this past year,” he said. “We thought we knew where we were. We thought we understood our place. And then suddenly things changed very quickly.”
For many who gathered, this was the first time seeing live music in a long time. And what got to some of them came near the end of the event.
As soprano Elizabeth Zito sang Christian songwriter Kari Jobe's “I Am Not Alone,” Rossi invited the crowd to join in. And they did, singing words for those who were lost — but, perhaps even more so, for themselves, the people a condo tower is survived by.
I am not alone.
I am not alone.
You will go before me.
You will never leave me.