It was past midnight last Thursday when a large portion of a twelve-story condominium building in Surfside, near Miami, fell to the ground. The sound of the building crumbling echoed for nearly a minute. Some neighbors likened the roar to that of loud thunder, while others believed it was caused by an approaching hurricane. It seemed as if a missile had struck that serene stretch of coast. Those who managed to escape described opening their front doors to find the hallway gone—and their neighbors as well. After the emergency stairwell filled with rubble, balconies—accessible to rescuers by ladder—proved to be the only way out.
Gimena Accardi and Nicolás Vázquez, an Argentine couple, were returning from dinner when the main elevator stopped on the lobby floor. Hit by a gust of smoke and dust, they clutched each other’s hands and ran toward the exit. Vázquez couldn’t even see Accardi’s silhouette, a spokesperson for the couple told the Argentinian press, but they managed to reach the street. Behind them, dozens of residents were trapped inside. The missing include children and nonagenarians; retirees, attorneys, and therapists, as well as singers and surgeons; Puerto Ricans, New Yorkers, Chileans, and Israelis, all of whom had made Champlain Towers South their home. As of Monday morning, a hundred and fifty-two of them remained missing.
The central question surrounding the condo building’s collapse is: Why? Half of the units in the building were destroyed, leaving only a mountain of debris and the tower’s exposed skeleton, which offers a window into its apartments: white wooden bunk beds, myriad paintings and shelves, pine cabinets and turquoise linens. In 2018, a local engineer named Frank Morabito inspected the building, which was built in 1981, and found “major structural damage” in the pool’s concrete slab, as well as numerous issues with the walls, beams, and columns in the garage. Two years later, a study by a professor at Florida International University analyzed data from the nineteen-nineties and found evidence that the land was subsiding at the site. Although the condo’s board was notified of the engineer’s findings, repairs were set to begin only later this summer. Now many relatives of the missing are demanding to know why the renovations were not started sooner.
On Sunday evening, I spoke with William Sánchez, a Cuban-American lawyer in his late fifties who worked in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush Administration, and who is running for the U.S. Senate next year as a Democrat. His aunt, Maricoy Obias-Bonnefoy, sixty-five, and his uncle Claudio Bonnefoy Bachelet, eighty-nine, lived in Champlain Towers South. Four days after the collapse, they remain missing. Sánchez has spent hours waiting in a reunification center with hundreds of other relatives of the missing, asking for answers from officials and shuttling back and forth to the site. His account has been edited and condensed.
“We know her as Tita Coy, because she’s Filipina and instead of using Tia, like Spaniards do, people in the Philippines use Tita and Tito. She lived her early years in the Philippines and then came to the States to live with a family, like one of the pen-pal families back in the day. She lived most of her adult life in the Washington, D.C., area, around Foggy Bottom, because she was a budget officer at the International Monetary Fund. She married Claudio about thirty years ago—he was a lawyer for the mission of Chile to the United Nations in New York and then transferred to the I.M.F., which is where he met Tita Coy.
“Tito Claudio had just recently married Tita Coy, and I was getting to know him as an uncle. We were having barbecue in the house up in D.C., and he said, ‘William, you know, I think my cousin is going to run for President in Chile.’ And I was, like, ‘Wow, that sounds interesting.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what she’s venturing into, because Chile’s had a difficult past.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well, good luck to her.’ And next thing you know, within a few years, she’s the President. [Tito Claudio’s cousin, Michelle Bachelet, served as the President of Chile from 2006 to 2010, and again from 2014 to 2018.]
“When Tita Coy and Claudio retired, about twelve or thirteen years ago, they were looking around, and they were thinking maybe return to the Philippines, maybe go to Chile, maybe the States. They came out to Miami, they visited us, and they said they really liked the city.
“When they said it was Tita Coy’s building [that collapsed], I couldn’t believe it. So, with my brother-in-law, we got his truck and we drove down, and we went right next to the building and we saw it—and, man, it was amazing. It was like a nightmare. We were looking at the building and half of it was gone. We thought only part of the apartment had broken off, but, in fact, the whole section of that building went down. So I pick up the phone and call my wife, and we both start bawling. And we’re, like, ‘What are we going to do?’
“Now, given what’s happened, it’s so frustrating, because if they would have known what we now know. . . . There was this F.I.U. study that says that the building’s been sinking since the nineties. So, if they had been informed that the building was sinking, they wouldn’t have moved in there. There’s so much hidden . . . to me, criminal behavior, to allow the building to stay open.
“The pool needed to be fixed, and there were cracks in the pool. And that engineer did say that it didn’t just start in the pool, it actually came from the foundation of the building. No one made it serious enough.
“I would like the Army Corps of Engineers, an independent federal body, to maybe do a study of a number of builders. No. 1, they’re professional; No. 2, they work on infrastructure projects all around America; and, No. 3, they’re not from here, and they’re not going to be biased toward the county government.
“We really were excited about seeing Tita Coy and Claudio. We were all coming for a reunion this weekend and were really looking forward to seeing Tita Coy. So, some of them were already flying in when this all happened. We still have more family flying in tonight. Little by little, people start trickling in.
“I feel very lost. You know, we don’t know where to go, what to do. Today, we just went over there, with all the family. There was a lot of crying. But there was also some hope, because the dogs started barking, which meant that there might have been some activity. We saw, like, thirty or forty of the rescuers going in and pulling out rubble.
“We gathered at the reunification center. There were a few hundred people, just dazed, walking around trying to figure out where to go and what to do. And volunteers arriving from the Red Cross, and some police, and a lot of cameras on the street—you know, trying to take pictures of what’s going on. They were waiting outside on the sidewalk; they weren’t allowed to enter the visitor center.
“I was sitting with a guy on the bus today. He’s Israeli and he has a friend who was in the building. We were automatic friends, just sitting next to each other going to the site, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m really happy, because the team from Israel is coming and arriving today. They’re really top-notch’—they always work on bomb sites, which are similar. And then there were other people that we just kind of stood next to, and we all cried together. They were just waiting like all of us, but you get hope. You really don’t know who to talk to, because you’re going through the emotions yourself. Today, I am starting to feel more comfortable, because I’m seeing familiar faces and realizing that we’re all in it together and it doesn’t matter if you’re Asian, Jewish, or Catholic.
“They released some videos of the fire rescue working in the garage, which is under the building. It was inundated with water, and you can see where it was partially caved in. They’re clearly risking their lives. That kind of gave us some relief that something could be done. Today, me and my wife, and the family who was with us, we were praying and facing it. And facing it and looking at it. You see the dogs, and then you see the rescue workers trying to dig. There was the sense of hope: whether they’re alive or not, at least [rescue crews] really are trying. And I think most of the families are getting that sense that we’re part of it now.”