Surfside Families Visit Site of Fallen Condo Tower

Neighbors pay tribute at the seashore as they approach the area of the Champlain Towers building.
Neighbors pay tribute at the seashore as they approach the area of the Champlain Towers building. Photo by Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty
After being holed up for four days in a hotel and hearing little but sorrowful news, today the family members of the missing in Surfside were able to visit the mountain of rubble where their relatives are buried.

There, they mourned. They prayed. And they screamed.

They screamed as loud as they could, from 30 yards away, the names of their loved ones. They screamed that they loved them, screamed for them to hold on. And the sounds of their screams captured the horror of the catastrophe — the despair, the heartbreak, and the utter exasperation — in a way that chilled anyone within earshot to the bone.

"We want to scream so they can hear our voices," one family member said Saturday as they asked to visit the site.

Officials brought the family members in two busloads at a time to a hotel on the north side of the site beginning Sunday at 2 p.m.

"You want to scream, you want to yell, you want to cry, you want to put your anger at us, do so," Assistant Miami-Dade Fire Chief Ray Jadallah told the families.

Jadallah, who has led the briefings at the family reunification center for the past three days, also braced them for the potential horrors they might witness.

"Understand what you may see, remember this is an active scene," he said. "You may see — I just have to prepare you — you may see a victim, you may see human may see some horrible items."

By Sunday, nine people had been found dead in the wreckage. For days, no voices have been audible under the debris. 

"We continue to hear sounds and, I can't emphasize enough, it's not voices," said Jadallah. "It could be a tap, it could be a scratch, it could be the metal contorting underneath the rubble. It's not anybody yelling or anything like that. We haven't heard any voices since the time—"

He didn't finish the sentence. Jadallah had made it clear to the families from the very beginning that he was going to tell them the truth, whether it was good or bad. And by all accounts, he has lived up to that promise. Unfortunately, almost all the news has been bad, with possibly the worst of it coming during his Saturday evening briefing.

"Just bear with me, what I'm about to say, because it's going to sink in," Jadallah said, pausing before he continued: "It's not necessarily that we're finding victims, OK? We're finding human remains."

Cries and sobs broke out among the dozens of family members in the room.

"Oh my God," said one.

Jadallah continued.

"As the building came down, the pancake collapse, we're having a hard time finding the bodies that are intact," he said. "What we're finding again is human remains."

While the situation is almost unfathomably grim, the chance for good news isn't entirely extinguished. This morning, a member of the Israeli rescue team now embedded at the site addressed the crowd, which included many of the Jewish faith. When he was asked if anyone could still be alive under the rubble, he told them that he was in Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake there in 2010 and that people had been rescued alive after a similar time period.

"There is hope," he told them.

While family members have continued to express their gratitude for the efforts of Jadallah and all the first responders, frustration and anger have invariably flared up at times in the room. As tensions rose at this morning's briefing, Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez took the microphone and emotionally addressed the mourners, assuring them that police officers embedded at the site "don't miss a beat."

"We know you're hurting. We're hurting as well," Ramirez said. "And we want to make sure we bring closure to you. That's what we want, and we're working hard out there. And we hear your voices, and we feel your pain."

He turned to look at the officers behind him in the room.

"Look at them. I see you're hurting; our people are hurting as well. We're standing here with you. We're a family right now. This tragedy has put us together. Please understand that. We have to get through this together."

As he concluded, the room broke out in applause.
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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman