'What will I tell my son?': Family wrestles with missing mother and grandmother after building collapse in Florida

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SURFSIDE, Fla. – Six-year-old John Paul Rodriguez keeps telling his dad to call his missing grandmother’s cellphone.

“Her cellphone might be smushed,” he tells him, "but try again."

Elena Blasser, 64, is among the 159 people still unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside condominium building in Miami-Dade County, Florida, plummeted early Thursday, leaving dozens of residents trapped. Rescue efforts were underway, with crews tunneling through the rubble, but officials said it was unlikely there would be any survivors. At least four people were confirmed dead.

As the days pass with no news, a sense of dread has overcome Blasser's son, Pablo Rodriguez. Elena Chavez, 88, Blasser’s mother and Rodriguez's grandmother, is also missing. She had decided to sleep over the apartment the night before the building collapsed.

John Paul knows his grandmother and great-grandmother were in the building when it crumbled, and he seems to think they will be OK. But the likely loss gnaws at Rodriguez. He had recently finished resurfacing the pool in his backyard and his little boy has been patiently waiting for Saturday to jump in with both of them.

“What will I tell my son?” Rodriguez, 40, said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Saturdays are abuela's days.”

Elena Chavez, 88 (left) and Elena Blasser, 64, (right), pose for a photo with their grandson and great-grandson, John Paul. Chavez and Blesser are still unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.
Elena Chavez, 88 (left) and Elena Blasser, 64, (right), pose for a photo with their grandson and great-grandson, John Paul. Chavez and Blesser are still unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.

A close-knit family prepares for bad news

After the building partially collapsed, a huge dust cloud swallowed the Surfside neighborhood that has long been a quiet enclave for many Jewish and Argentine American families in South Florida, as well as for other Latinos, Americans and international residents.

For Rodriguez, a part of his life has also collapsed.

Every Saturday morning, the doorbell rang at his home.

Rodriguez’s son, John Paul, would excitedly open the door to hug Chavez, who he calls "Yeyi," and Blesser, who he calls "Ama." The two would scoop the wide-eyed boy up and drive him to a local Cuban bakery for fresh guava pastelitos.

They would spend the day at the pool or playing at the beach alongside the now semi-collapsed Champlain Towers.

They never missed a Saturday.

Elena Blasser, 64, and her grandson, John Paul, kiss hello during one of their many Saturday dates.
Elena Blasser, 64, and her grandson, John Paul, kiss hello during one of their many Saturday dates.

The women were born in Cuba. Chavez gave birth to Blesser in 1956, two years before Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. The family first fled the Communist regime to New York before eventually settling down in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s.

Chavez, once a devoted schoolteacher, impressed a love of learning onto her daughter, who also became a teacher.

The family relocated to Miami in 1978, setting up homes in a duplex so that mother and daughter could live next door to each other.

Although his parents divorced when he was a kid, Rodriguez described being blessed with an idyllic Cuban American childhood in Miami: his abuelo teaching him to play baseball at Tamiami Park, running behind the ice cream truck with his mom, the scent of his grandmother’s black beans.

“Nobody makes frijoles negros like she does,” Rodriguez said. “She tried teaching everyone and my wife, too, but for some reason they don’t taste the same.”

There’s still a plastic margarine tub in Rodriguez's fridge filled with a batch of black beans Chavez cooked.

Alejandro Rodriguez, 40, (left) and his mom, Elena Blasser, 64, pose for a photo at a brewery in Washington, D.C., during a family vacation in June. Blasser is unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.
Alejandro Rodriguez, 40, (left) and his mom, Elena Blasser, 64, pose for a photo at a brewery in Washington, D.C., during a family vacation in June. Blasser is unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.

After the divorce, Blasser raised two kids as a single mother on a public school teacher’s salary while also supporting two aging parents.

"Now I know why some weekends we'd take the stale bread and go to the canal to feed the ducks," Rodriguez said. "It didn't cost money."

The sacrifices required the family to lean on each other, Rodriguez said.

"If my mom were sitting here right now, that’s what she would tell you," he said, "her only mission was that we be united.”

'Buildings don't just collapse'

When Rodriguez was in high school, his mother married Joseph Blasser, a Jewish Panamanian businessman she met in Miami.

Years later, after she retired from teaching, Elena Blasser sold her house and used her savings to fulfill her lifelong dream of living close to the water. In 2009, she and her husband purchased unit number 1211 of the Champlain Towers South.

“My mother loved the beach. She loved sitting in the water like a buoy,” Rodriguez said.

There were many beach days. Weekends at the beach. Walks on the sands. Every July, Rodriguez would travel with his family, including Blasser and Chavez, to different tropical sites. They visited the Cayman Islands, Mexico and Turks and Caicos.

They were other places they had hoped to visit.

Rodriguez last spoke to both his mother and grandmother Wednesday around 7 p.m. He said his mother complained of hearing rumblings in the building but thought nothing of it.

“They were in perfect health and then this happens, the ground is taken from you—literally,” Rodriguez says. "Every time I close my eyes, I see the images on the news of the tower falling. Every single time."

Rodriguez's stepfather was not harmed. Joseph Blasser had been on a business trip when his home collapsed. He returned Thursday to find his wife missing.

A lawsuit against Champlain Towers South was filed late Thursday night. The court filing alleged the condominium did not repair structural problems and failed to prevent the building’s collapse. Although a cause for the collapse has yet to be determined, USA TODAY found the building built in 1981 had been sinking since the 1990s, according to a study performed by experts.

Rodriguez said his mother didn't approve of the condominium association's management. But whatever the outcome of the investigation or expected tsunami of lawsuits, Rodriguez said he feels cheated. His mother and grandmother were in perfect health.

“Buildings don’t just collapse in Miami," he said as tears rolled down his face.

Elena Blasser (right), 64, and her grandson, John Paul, play outside the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., in June. Blesser is among 159 people unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.
Elena Blasser (right), 64, and her grandson, John Paul, play outside the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., in June. Blesser is among 159 people unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.

Family members submit DNA samples as they wait for answers

On Friday afternoon, Rodriguez drove to the Surfiside Community Center that had housed evacuees and missing people’s families since the building’s tragic demise.

Some people sat in folded chairs cloaked in American Red Cross emblazoned blankets. The sound of people’s voices bounced off the walls. Volunteers—many of them from the local Orthodox Jewish community—shuffled back and forth handing out food. Grilled fish, kosher hamburgers, potato salad. Others set up tents to shield families from the rain and collect aid.

Rodriguez and his wife waited in line outside the double doors. He was there to give a DNA sample in the hope that his relatives' remains could be identified.

While he was standing in line, a Hasidic Jewish man wearing a traditional black hat approached him.

Elena Blasser (bottom left), 64, celebrates her first outing with her friends in a year after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Blesser is among the 159 people still unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.
Elena Blasser (bottom left), 64, celebrates her first outing with her friends in a year after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Blesser is among the 159 people still unaccounted for after a 12-story oceanside Miami condo plummeted early Thursday.

“Do you have a place to go for Shabbat?” the man asked.

Rodriguez and his wife informed the man that the family wasn't Jewish.

“It doesn’t matter. We are here for you. If you need a place to go this weekend, clothes, food…we have food for five months, you come over here,” the man said with a thick Hebrew accent in English.

Rodriguez's eyes swelled and the man grabbed his shoulder to comfort him.

Later, after his sample had been taken, Rodriguez and his wife returned to their car and drove to pick up their son, who had spent the day playing at a friend’s house.

There were many unanswered questions, Rodriguez thought. Were his mother and grandmother alive? What happened? Who was responsible?

And then there was the most painful question, the one he still didn't know how to answer for his son: “Are Ama and Yeyi coming over tomorrow?”

Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida building collapse victims: Mother, grandmother lost to rubble

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