Friends, family describe missing in Florida condo collapse
SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Families around the world remained stuck between waning hopes and widening fears Saturday, two days after the stunning collapse of a 12-story condominium near Miami.
At least five people were killed and more than 150 people remained unaccounted for as rescuers continued to dig through the rubble of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside. The building was home to an international mix of foreign retirees, South American immigrants and Orthodox Jews, all with anxious loved ones across the globe.
The Miami-Dade Police Department identified for the first time four of the five deceased people late Saturday and the apartments where they were at the moment at the collapse. Their names were Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79; and Manuel LaFont, 54.
STACIE DAWN FANG
Stacie Dawn Fang was with her son Jonah Handler when the building collapsed. They lived on the tenth floor of the condo building. The boy’s small hand waved through the wreckage as a man who was out walking his dog hurried to the site, climbed through a pile of glass and rebar and promised to get help right away.
Rescuers helped the boy out from under a pile of cement and carried him away on a stretcher, taking him to a hospital.
“There are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie,” members of her family said in a statement. “Many heartfelt words of encouragement and love have served as a much needed source of strength during this devastating time.”
As far as the boy’s condition, a friend of the family, Lisa Mozloom told the AP “He will be fine. He’s a miracle.”
ANTONIO AND GLADYS LOZANO
Antonio, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79, lived on the ninth floor and were close to celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary. Their son, Sergio Lozano, told WPLG-TV that he had dinner with his parents hours before the collapse.
The son lived in one of the towers of the complex and could see his parents’ apartment across the way from his. That night, he said the heard a loud noise they thought could be a storm.
“The building is not there,” he said he told his wife. “My parents’ apartment is not there. It’s gone.”
Here are the stories of some of the missing:
TZVI AND INGRID “ITTY” AINSWORTH
Tzvi and Ingrd “Itty” Ainsworth were celebrating the birth of two new grandchildren. Their son in South Africa recently had a baby and their son in Florida had a baby just days ago, their niece Chana Harrel told The Associated Press on Saturday.
The couple, who are in their 60s, lived in Australia for nearly two decades before returning to South Florida to be near their children. The couple had seven children and many live in South Florida, including their daughter just blocks away, she said.
“Every person she encountered, ever in her life, became her friend. Everyone was treated as equals,” Chana Wasserman wrote in a Mother’s Day blog post to her mother Itty last year. “The guy at the laundromat, the guy working at the fruit market ... ”
Ingrid struggled with chronic pain issues, but didn’t let that darken her mood. She tried to focus on the positive, a sunny day, a long car ride that would seem tedious to many she reframed as a chance to talk and catch up, he daughter wrote.
“I know I will never be able to match my mother’s pure enthusiasm for life but it’s inspiring to watch,” Wasserman wrote.
Itty’s mother, a Holocaust survivor living in Miami Beach, is battling cancer and doesn’t know about the tragedy.
“They didn’t tell her. She’s not well,” Harrel. said. “It’s absolutely horrific.”
BRAD AND GARY COHEN
Brothers Brad and Gary Cohen were both medical doctors who were active in their local communities. Brad Cohen was married to Soriya Cohen. She has spent hours outside the condo building, showing pictures of the siblings on her phone to anyone who will listen, desperate for updates.
“We need every bit of help we can get. This is the difference between life and death for so many people including possibly my husband if he’s still alive,” she told CBS News 4.
Dr. Brad Cohen was a popular orthopedic surgeon who specialized in sports medicine. A woman who answered the phone at his office Friday said, with sadness in her voice, that his patients adored him. He did his residency at the State University of Stony Brook in New York and a fellowship at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, according to his website.
His brother, Dr. Gary Cohen was a physician at Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center in Alabama, and was also active in his local synagogue there.
“He spent many years providing care to our Veterans. He is part of the Tuscaloosa VAMC family and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this incredibly difficult time,” according to a statement from John Merkle, director of the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center.
DAVID AND BONNIE EPSTEIN
David and Bonnie Epstein lived in unit 901 with their dog Chase, said Bonnie’s cousin Joey Feldman.
David was a retired successful real estate investor who loved to jet ski and kite surf. The couple have a son who lives in New York.
Feldman said the family is very small.
“Bonnie was like my sister growing up,” said Feldman, who lives in Los Angeles. “She took me to my first concert.”
He said he is devastated but is praying for a miracle.
“I am holding out hope,” he said. “I came into work to get my mind off of it. But no sleep.”
Hilda Noriega had called Champlain Towers home for more than 20 years. But six years after her husband died, the 92-year-old was ready to leave.
“We were going to move her into our home and her condo was up for sale,” said Sally Noriega, her daughter-in-law.
Sally Noriega said her mother-in-law was extremely active and loved living so close to the ocean and to her friends. But, she said, “when you lose a spouse you want to be surrounded by family ... and she wanted to spend more time with her family and grandchildren.”
Hilda Noriega’s daughter-in-law described her as “an extremely loving and sweet person,” who built a life with her husband and raised a family after coming to the U.S. from Cuba in 1960.
“She was just one of those people who from the first time she met a person she instantly loved that person and that person instantly loved her,” said Sally Noriega, who rushed to the scene of the collapse with her husband, Carlos Noriega.
There, they found a reminder of the particularly strong bond Hilda Noriega shared with members of her church group. As they stood trying to hold onto hope amid the rubble, Carlos Noriega noticed an envelope peeking out from under his shoe.
“On the outside it was addressed to Hilda and the card had butterflies on it and it was a birthday card signed by her prayer group,” said Sally Noriega. “They had taken her out for her birthday and they all signed the card.”
Sally Noriega said the family does not know what to make of the card found among so much debris and chaos.
But, “we are a family of faith,” she said. “We’ll just leave it at that.”
MYRIAM CASPI NOTKIN and ARNOLD NOTKIN
Myriam Caspi Notkin, 81, and her husband, Arnold “Arnie” Notkin, 87, married about 20 years ago after losing their spouses, according to a family friend.
“They were a happy couple. We’re hoping for a miracle,” said Fortuna Smukler, a North Miami Beach commissioner who grew up with Myriam Notkin’s three daughters. When they ran into each other as adults, Notkin always recalled her friendship with Smukler’s mother, who died 40 years ago.
“Every time Myriam would see me, she always had to make a point of saying how wonderful my mother was,” Smukler said. “She was very thoughtful.”
Smukler also knew Arnie Notkin dating back to his days as a physical education teacher and coach at Leroy D. Fienberg Elementary School in South Beach in the 1960s. He had an engaging personality and always had a story to tell.
“He had students who became famous, and he had to tell me about them, how they were good or mischievous,” she said.
MARIA THERESA AND RICKY ROVIROSA
Maria Theresa and Ricky Rovirosa are a “perfect match” who support each other and others, according to longtime friend Monika Mucarsel Gressier.
The couple has two grown children they raised in their South Miami home, and used their Surfside condo as a part-time summer getaway. Gressier was living in California when she met Maria Theresa, whom she called Maituca, through work.
“We became instant friends,” Gressier said in a text message. “She was one reason that gave me security and support for accepting a relocation to live in Miami. Maituca became my family support and always gave me and others the resources and guidance to navigate through the city of Miami.”
Gressier described Ricky as charming and his wife as “stunningly beautiful” inside and out.
“When I think of them, I think of one of my favorite memories of the times I watched them dance salsa and how loving they were always to each other,” Gressier wrote. “I am praying and hoping that they will survive this tragedy, as I know the strength, they both carry within, and I also know that their tremendous love for their girls and family will keep them fighting to survive this.”
Cassondra Billedeau-Stratton, 40, has worked as an actress, model and Pilates instructor, bringing “a vivacious love of life to everything she does,” her husband said in a statement.
“Cassie is a wife, mother and true friend to so many,” said Michael Stratton, a Democratic political strategist from Colorado. He told Denver’s KMGH-TV that he and his wife spent much of their time during the coronavirus pandemic in the condo they have owned for four years.
Billedeau-Stratton loved walking and biking along the beach, her sister, Stephanie Fonte, told the New York Times. When the sisters were together, she often would make them pose for photos on the beach or near a burst of flowers.
Michael Stratton said he and his wife were talking on the phone when the building collapsed.
“She described that the building was shaking and then … the phone went dead,” he said.
Ilian Naibryf has been an active member of the Jewish community at the University of Chicago since arriving at the school three years ago, said Rabbi Yossi Brackman of the school’s Rohr Chabad.
Naibryf, who just finished his junior year, served as the president of the Chabad House’s student board for the past year. He and his girlfriend were in Florida to attend a funeral of a friend who had died of COVID-19, his parents told CNN.
“He is a really great guy, very friendly, always has a smile on his face and is just a really all-around well-liked person,” Brackman said.
Brackman said the Rohr Chabad community is distraught but hopeful.
“Our message is one of hope and we encourage everyone to pray and be kind at this difficult time for many people,” he said. “We believe in miracles, seen them and hope to see them again.”
Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, Colleen Slevin in Denver, Don Babwin in Chicago, Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia, Kelli Kennedy and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.