When the Surfside condo tumbled down in June, rescue workers painstakingly searched through the mountain of debris to recover nearly 100 victims and lots of personal property.
Among the buried personal items at the collapse site of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building were cars in the underground garage, as well as furniture, clothes, jewelry and photos of families and friends.
Miami-Dade County rescue workers also recovered cash — about $750,000 in total — some still neatly tucked into purses and wallets but most randomly scattered throughout the sprawling rubble.
“It can’t be tied to a particular floor, it can’t be tied to a particular unit and it can’t be tied to a particular owner,” said attorney Michael Goldberg, the receiver for the 136-unit Champlain condominium association.
“I guess that’s a little surprising — the amount,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman said Thursday during a regular hearing on a class-action lawsuit and other legal matters swirling around the partial collapse of the Collins Avenue condo building.
Fortunately, though the mostly loose cash was badly damaged, there is hope that it can be restored and its value redeemed by the U.S. Department of Treasury, Goldberg told the judge.
Goldberg said the Treasury Department has agreed to clean up the cash and issue a check for its total value to the receiver so that he can return the money to the owners or a general fund for victims. He said some of the cash found in the purses and wallets can probably be linked to their owners, but the vast majority of the money cannot be tied to anyone — so it will end up going into the general fund.
Hanzman called his plan a “solid suggestion,” then added: “I will give everybody the right to be heard.”
How that process will unfold remains to be seen. More than likely, the receiver and the judge will create a system allowing for victims who lost some cash to file a claim.
In addition to the potential cash windfall, Goldberg told the judge that 17 safes were found in the rubble and must be examined to determine their owners. He said he is working with Miami-Dade officials and police, who have had control over the 8777 Collins Ave. condo site since the June 24 collapse of part of the building. For safety reasons, the standing portion of the tower was later demolished.
The ever-looming topic of money dominated Thursday’s hearing. Goldberg told the judge that the sale of the Champlain Towers South site for $120 million to a “stalking horse” buyer will be formalized in a contract next week, to be followed by a couple of months due diligence on zoning, environmental and other issues. Meanwhile, other potential buyers can submit bids for the 1.88-acre oceanfront property, which might surpass the stalking horse’s bid and generate a higher sales price.
However, finalizing the land sale for a planned high-rise luxury condo project could last until early spring, delaying the transaction for a few months. That new time frame disappointed the judge. “I don’t want the timetable pushed back,” Hanzman said, before recognizing the reality of the inevitable delay.
Hanzman has repeatedly expressed a strong interest in “monetizing” the property as quickly as possible to compensate the victims. At this rate, Hanzman said he might be able to approve the distribution of the proceeds from the land sale in the spring.
The other big source of money for compensating the victims will come from the condo building’s insurance coverage for loss of property and lives, totaling about $49 million. That money is already available, but Hanzman told some victims during the court hearing via a Zoom connection that he wanted to wait until all the proceeds from the land sale, insurance and possibly other liable third parties are collected before distributing any money.
The judge said distributing the proceeds fairly will be a complex problem because 98 people died and dozens of other residents survived the condo collapse. There are 136 owners of units in the building; some lived there and some rented to tenants, while others were visiting family or friends on the night of the tower’s collapse. In addition, many of the residents worked and suffered income losses.
At Thursday’s court hearing, a handful of Champlain condo owners who survived the collapse said they desperately need money for everyday living expenses and asked the judge for help.
“I have been in touch with lots of residents who became homeless,” said Steve Rosenthal, who described how they were forced to “start from scratch” and now struggle to pay for a rental apartment or house.
To help some of the Champlain victims with living costs, Hanzman approved a plan to allocate $5,000 to each of them from a $1 million fund donated by a Miami attorney. The money is intended for relocation costs, such as renting an apartment or house. The judge had previously approved the distribution of $10,000 for relocation expenses in the aftermath of the condo collapse.