By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON and CURT ANDERSON
The Associated Press
SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — 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 structure collapses in U.S. history.
The names of each victim were read aloud during a ceremony Friday to mark the somber anniversary, attended by political figures, first responders and family members of those who died at Champlain Towers South on June 24, 2021.
The ceremony came a day after a state judge approved one of the largest class action settlements of its kind: more than $1 billion to compensate victims’ families and survivors.
“Exactly 365 days ago, my house imploded, my home collapsed with everything and everyone inside but me. I am alive, and I have the chance to rediscover something that motivates me to smile again, to fight, to be a whole person,” said Raquel Oliveira, whose husband and 5-year-old son died in the collapse while she was visiting her mother.
“Let’s not give up on justice, love, gratitude, forgiveness. Let’s not give up life. We have not come this far just to come this far,” she added.
The disaster, the largest non-hurricane emergency response in Florida history, drew rescue crews from across the U.S. and as far away as Israel to help local teams search for victims. They were honored Friday for their difficult work.
Before the public ceremony organized by the town of Surfside, there was a private torch-lighting at the time — about 1:25 a.m. — when the 136-unit condominium building fell a year ago.
First Lady Jill Biden was among speakers at the public event that also included Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We stand by you today and always,” Biden said during comments briefly interrupted by a standing ovation when she mentioned the firefighters “who spent weeks working to recover your loved ones.”
“If there is something strong enough to help us carry this burden of grief forward, something to break its gravitational pull, it’s love,” Biden said.
DeSantis, a Republican, recalled how he was awakened at 3 a.m. the day the building fell and increasingly realized the immense scope of the disaster as he traveled to Surfside. He thanked first responders and noted that the state budget he recently signed contains $1 million for a memorial to the 98 people lost.
“We are not going to forget what they meant to this community,” the governor said.
There was an effort by many victims and family members to install a memorial at the site where the building once stood, but the land is being sold for $120 million to a Dubai developer and a memorial will likely be created nearby.
Only two teenagers and a woman survived the collapse, 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 waited only to learn about the remains of their lovedones.
Those lost in the collapse included two sisters, 4 and 11, who were so tiny that they were buried in the same casket.
Lyla Thurber, 12, attended the ceremony with her family, who wore white T-shirts with photos of the young sisters with their parents. She was close friends in school with the older sister, Lucia.
“She was happy, always smiling and playing,” she said. “I wanted to come here and talk to people so they could learn more about her.”
Luis Bermudez, who lost his 26-year-old son, also named Luis, wept often as he spoke in celebration of his son, who he said taught people, himself included, to live without fear and without limits.
“God needed a special angel to help him and you were chosen,” Bermudez said, and at the end held up large photographs of his son in each hand.
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 saltwater 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 said.
Although the investigation is expected to take years, a judge has been given credit for finalizing the compensation settlement, in less than a year.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman praised the dozens of lawyers involved, and a woman who lost her daughter called the judge and attorneys heroes in black robes and business suits.
Hanzman said the compensation deal was extraordinary in its scope and speed. Checks for victims could begin going out in September.
“This settlement is the best we can do. It’s a remarkable result,” he said.
Still, the wounds are still fresh for the hundreds of people who lost loved ones a year ago.
“Our family lost everything,” said Kevin Spiegel, whose wife Judy died while he was traveling on business. “One year later, time has not healed my broken heart.”
Anderson reported from St. Petersburg.
The spelling of Raquel Oliveira’s name has been corrected in this story.