‘I’ve got two holes in my soul.’ Surfside victims’ family members say pain is still intense

·16 min read

The daughters, sons, parents, sisters, brothers, widows and widowers of the victims hope they were asleep. They pray their loved ones were lulled into a deep slumber that night by the sound of waves on their Surfside beach, rolling and receding under a full moon.

They prefer to think the 98 people who were killed in the collapse of Champlain Towers South at 1:22 a.m. on June 24, 2021, never knew what hit them. They did not suffer pain or feel scared. They weren’t confronted by an awful choice, like the victims of 9/11 who leapt from the burning towers. The hope is they died peacefully, instantaneously.

But many grieving relatives know otherwise.

Cassie Stratton was wide awake on her fourth-floor balcony shortly after the 12-story condominium’s pool deck caved into the parking garage at 1:15 a.m. She described what she saw while talking on her cellphone to her husband, Mike, who was out of town.

She thought a sinkhole caused the crater. She was relieved she’d left her car at the repair shop earlier that day. A few minutes ticked by. Her voice rose when she said the building was shaking. Mike heard her scream. The line went dead.

Mike and Cassie Stratton at the premiere of the 2018 film “The Front Runner,” about candidate Gary Hart’s political fall from grace. Cassie Stratton was talking to her husband, describing the pool deck caving in at the Champlain Towers South condo on June 24, 2021. She died in the condo collapse, which killed 98 people. Her husband was out of town.
Mike and Cassie Stratton at the premiere of the 2018 film “The Front Runner,” about candidate Gary Hart’s political fall from grace. Cassie Stratton was talking to her husband, describing the pool deck caving in at the Champlain Towers South condo on June 24, 2021. She died in the condo collapse, which killed 98 people. Her husband was out of town.

‘Bloodcurdling scream’

“My sister had a front-row seat to her own demise,” said Ashley Dean, who wishes Stratton had run out of unit 410 and down the stairs during the 7-minute gap between the time the deck collapsed and two-thirds of the building collapsed. “It was a bloodcurdling scream. She saw what was happening.”

Dean is convinced Stratton, 40, was still alive when the first Surfside police officers arrived on the scene and shone flashlights over the deck wall through thick dust toward the pile of rubble, dumbfounded by what they found. Wails and cries for help can be heard on one officer’s body-cam recording.

“That’s exactly where Cassie would have been,” Dean said. “I recognize her voice, calling out. I’ve replayed the tape to be sure. I know she was alive, but for how long? We had twin hearts, my baby sister and me, and mine is forever broken.”

READ MORE: She was on the phone with her husband when the condo was shaking

‘Vivid nightmares’

Pablo Rodriguez wants to believe his mother, Elena Blasser, 64, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, 87, were sound asleep in 1211. But he knows they had been awakened by eerie creaking and cracking noises the night before. He knows surviving neighbors saw Blasser on her balcony shouting at her mother to run: “Corre, Mami, corre!”

“I have very vivid nightmares and it’s like a disaster movie wrapped into a horror movie,” Rodriguez said. “I’m the camera panning the interior of the apartment and I see them tossed around as the building collapses.

“The medical examiner told us they died on impact but maybe he wanted to comfort us. Maybe they got out the door and ran. We just don’t know. We never will.”

READ MORE: Mother was keeping her daughter company at Surfside condo

One year later, the sorrow of the families is acute. The wondering — not knowing why, not knowing how — makes healing impossible.

A building in an American city suddenly falling down in the middle of the night? Not blown over by a hurricane, destroyed by a gas explosion or imploded by a bomb? Disbelief prevents acceptance. Incomprehensibility impedes closure — if there is such a thing.

“It was so far removed from the scope of logic,” Rodriguez said. “There was no outside actor — no terrorist, no mass shooter, no drunk driver.”

READ MORE: A neighborhood lost: Remembering the victims of the Surfside tower collapse

The families have been reassured that time heals all wounds. But that’s proven to be a meaningless platitude. When they stand in the vacant pit where Champlain South once stood at 1:22 a.m. Friday during a candlelight vigil to honor the dead — the exact time of the tower collapse — they say they will feel worse than they did one year ago.

“When I am an 80-year-old woman, my son will still be a 5-year-old boy,” said Raquel Oliveira, whose son Lorenzo and husband, Alfredo Leone, died in the collapse while she was visiting family in Colorado. With the passage of time, she’ll have to mark more birthdays, anniversaries and milestones. “I don’t know if I can bear it.”

READ MORE: ‘Not a single drawing.’ Mom who lost son, husband in Surfside faces life without keepsakes

Jonah Handler, 16, who was rescued from atop the rubble pile with injuries to his spine, must go on without his mother, Stacie Fang, 54, who was rescued near him but died at Aventura Hospital. Jonah is living with his father at Champlain North.

Deven Gonzalez, 16, and her mother Angela, who were rescued atop the pile after plunging five stories, must rebuild their lives without Edgar, 45, Deven’s father and Angie’s husband. Deven has recovered from a broken femur and Angie from a shattered pelvis and lacerated liver, but the pain and guilt they feel over Edgar’s loss hasn’t faded. He was right next to them in bed, watching a horror movie that night. Angela’s daughter, Tayler Scheinhaus, had left earlier in the evening.

Tayler Scheinhaus, and her sister, Deven Gonzalez, hold hands as they arrive for their father’s funeral, Edgar Gonzalez, at Christ Fellowship Church in Palmetto Bay on Friday, July 23, 2021. Edgar Gonzalez died during the collapse of the 12-story oceanfront condo, Champlain Towers South in Surfside.
Tayler Scheinhaus, and her sister, Deven Gonzalez, hold hands as they arrive for their father’s funeral, Edgar Gonzalez, at Christ Fellowship Church in Palmetto Bay on Friday, July 23, 2021. Edgar Gonzalez died during the collapse of the 12-story oceanfront condo, Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

Eileen Rosenberg will have to find the strength to live without her daughter, Malky Weisz, 27, who died with her husband Benny, 32, during their visit from New Jersey with Malky’s father, Harry Rosenberg, 52, who also died. He lived in 212.

“I’m physically here but I died along with my Malky,” Rosenberg said Thursday during a court hearing in Miami. “She was my best friend. My pain is unbearable.”

READ MORE: Edgar Gonzalez’s Surfside family remembers a devoted dad, his hugs

David Velasquez lost his parents, Julio, 67, and Angela, 60, and his sister, Theresa, 36, a Los Angeles music company executive and former Miami DJ whom he eulogized as “effortlessly cool, a planet with her own gravity.” He has to live with the knowledge that Miami-Dade firefighters concluded Theresa’s was the voice in the rubble heard by first responders. She communicated with rescuers for hours while they tried to dig her out.

Theresa Velasquez, left, and her parents, Angela and Julio. All three died in the June 24, 2021, collapse of the Surfside Champlain Towers South condo collapse, which killed 98 people. Theresa, a music industry executive, had flown in the night before from L.A. to see her parents.
Theresa Velasquez, left, and her parents, Angela and Julio. All three died in the June 24, 2021, collapse of the Surfside Champlain Towers South condo collapse, which killed 98 people. Theresa, a music industry executive, had flown in the night before from L.A. to see her parents.

“Life is a terminal disease because death is inevitable,” said Kevin Spiegel. His wife, Judy, 65, died in the collapse while he was on a business trip in California. They lived in 603. He is a hospital administrator and former paramedic. “But this was not part of the natural order. They didn’t die of natural causes. Judy was perfectly healthy, living her best life as an adoring grandmother.

“They were cheated and we were robbed, which makes it so much harder to cope.”

Judy Spiegel with her granddaughters Scarlett, left, and Sloane. Judy Spiegel was killed in the June 24, 2021, Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside. In total, 98 people were killed.
Judy Spiegel with her granddaughters Scarlett, left, and Sloane. Judy Spiegel was killed in the June 24, 2021, Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside. In total, 98 people were killed.

READ MORE: ‘I’m a mess. Surfside survivors struggle to reclaim their lives after tower collapsed

The hope for a miracle lies dormant, but flares at odd moments. It’s the same sense of denial families clung to as the days dragged on and no one was pulled alive from the rubble. Only bodies or fragments of bodies. Relatives dreaded those meetings with police, when they were notified their DNA samples matched that of a recovered victim.

Holding out hope

“I was optimistic up until they found her. We wanted so badly for them to find someone,” said Rachel Spiegel, one of Judy’s three children. “My parents had this heavy-duty headboard and dresser. I convinced myself the furniture created a pocket for my mom. When it rained, I thought that was a good thing because the people who were trapped had water to drink.”

During nearly three weeks of waiting, Rachel told her daughters Scarlett, 5, and Sloane, 3, their grandmother was hiding.

“Scarlett wanted to go in and find her,” Kevin recalled. “She said, ‘I know where Grandma hides when we play hide and seek.’

“And at the funeral she wanted to get Judy out of the casket. She said, ‘Grandma would not like it down there.’ ”

Rachel pictured a dramatic reunion with her mother. The image still pops into her head.

“Sometimes I think she’s on vacation and soon she’ll be walking into the room and baking a cake with the girls,” she said.

Rachel Spiegel and her daughter, Sloane, at the memorial wall at the site of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside. Judy Spiegel, Rachel’s mother and Sloane’s grandmother, was one of the 98 people killed in the June 24, 2021 collapse.
Rachel Spiegel and her daughter, Sloane, at the memorial wall at the site of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside. Judy Spiegel, Rachel’s mother and Sloane’s grandmother, was one of the 98 people killed in the June 24, 2021 collapse.

Pain of determining a life’s worth

It’s been a year of mind tricks with physical manifestations. Psychiatrists warn that when grief seizes mind and body, the throat and chest tighten. Muscles go slack. An invisible weight crushes the shoulders.

The worst agony could be yet to come. Facing the families this summer is the task of claiming their share of the $1 billion settlement in the class-action lawsuit against two dozen defendants, including Champlain South’s security company, Securitas, whose employees operated the alarm system that was not activated; the condo association’s law firm; the engineer for the building’s 40-year recertification and much-debated renovation plan; and the developer and builders of the luxury condo next door, Eighty Seven Park. The defendants’ insurers settled the case, without admitting any fault.

READ MORE: Judge approves ‘remarkable’ $1 billion Surfside condo collapse settlement

The settlement provides a minimum payment of $1 million per death claim for the heirs and $50,000 per personal injury or psychological harm claim for the surviving owners. But for anything beyond those figures, claim forms must be filled out detailing the biographies of the dead, and then argued before Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman, who will determine the worth of each lost life by weighing such factors as age, occupation and potential career earnings.

“The next stage will be an even more painful division of the settlement pie,” said court-appointed receiver Michael Goldberg.

Families dread the process of calculating and justifying the value of their loved ones, as if they are negotiating some kind of morbid deal.

“It’s dehumanizing,” said Rodriguez, who is a lawyer specializing in trusts and probate cases. “It’s one thing to have a jury render a verdict on damages. It’s another to split a pot among 98 people ranging in age from 1 to 92.”

Devoted New Orleans Saints fan

Cassondra “Cassie” Billedeau Stratton was a Pilates instructor, model and actress in the prime of life known for her exuberant personality, devotion to the New Orleans Saints, appetite for Cajun cuisine and flaming red hair. Her husband, Mike, is a Democratic party campaign strategist. Her daughter, Ariana, 24, is a college student now living with Stratton’s sister in their hometown of Kenner, Louisiana, outside New Orleans.

Cassie Stratton and her sister, Ashley Dean, celebrate the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory in 2010 at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Cassie was one of 98 people who was killed in the of Champlain Towers South condo collapse on June 24, 2021.
Cassie Stratton and her sister, Ashley Dean, celebrate the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory in 2010 at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Cassie was one of 98 people who was killed in the of Champlain Towers South condo collapse on June 24, 2021.

Dean, 49, was close to her sister. She raised her from a young age after her twin sister died by suicide 30 years ago and their mother became ill. When they were kids they used to play at their grandmother’s house on Magazine Street, singing, dancing, dressing up for roles they created.

“Cassie was born to be in the limelight,” Dean said.

When Dean arrived in Surfside after the collapse to search for her sister, she showed everyone she met a picture of Cassie, asking if they had seen a redhead with big blue eyes.

Cassie Stratton, 40, called her husband Mike in the early hours of June 24, 2021 to tell him their condo was shaking. Then the line went dead. She died in the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside
Cassie Stratton, 40, called her husband Mike in the early hours of June 24, 2021 to tell him their condo was shaking. Then the line went dead. She died in the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside

“That night a radiant strawberry moon lit up the wreckage,” she said. “I thought it was a positive sign, because Cassie’s nickname was Strawberry Shortcake. But standing on the sand, looking at that horror, I knew deep down nobody was going to make it out of there.”

Dean and Mike and Ariana met twice a day with the other relatives to receive updates from the rescue team.

“It was excruciating,” she said.

On the 18th day, July 10, Stratton’s remains were identified by rescue workers. She was cremated. Memorial services were held on the beach in Surfside, in New York City and in New Orleans. Dean will speak at Friday’s memorial at the site.

Sometimes, out of habit, she’ll look at her phone seeking to know where Stratton is. But it says No Location Found.

Staying strong for Cassie

“What I do have is a box of Cassie’s clothes that was in the backseat of her car in the mechanic’s shop that she was planning to mail to me a week ahead of her visit home,” she said. “I can smell Cassie on her clothes.”

Last year was a devastating one for Stratton’s family. On Aug. 29, Hurricane Ida struck New Orleans. Dean’s roof was ripped off and the house flooded.

“It wasn’t as bad as Katrina when we had bodies floating by but it was bad,” she said. “We were in the house, and the wind, the shaking, the sound of the walls tearing apart — I thought of Cassie and what she went through as that building crashed on top of her. Maybe she had her two cats in her arms. I hope so. She loved those kitty cats.”

Dean’s husband was hospitalized for complications from diabetes. Her mother has severe back pain. Ariana has been withdrawn. Mike is depressed.

“One thing that keeps me going is that Cassie called me sister-mama. She said I took care of everyone,” Dean said. “I’ve got to stay strong for Cassie, because that’s how I taught her to be. If it was me who died, she’d be the beacon.

“I don’t want tragedy to define her. I hope her legacy will be new construction laws and stronger safety regulations that will save thousands and millions of lives. No one should die that way ever again.”

Cherished her two granddaughters

Rachel Spiegel considered her mother to be her best friend.

“I just never envisioned a world without her,” she said. “We had so much fun together. Plain old fun. One time I was bored at a party so we decided to change dresses in the bathroom and see if anybody would notice.”

Spiegel, a former stockbroker, embraced her role as mother and grandmother. During the pandemic, when Rachel was working long hours as assistant vice president for Baptist Health South Florida, Spiegel took care of Scarlett and Sloane.

“Her life revolved around her family,” Rachel said. “She was proud to be No. 1 in the carpool line. She loved coloring, reading, writing and cooking with the girls.”

On the night of the collapse, Rachel’s last conversation with her mom was about a pink-and-gold Disney princess dress Judy had found online for Scarlett.

“At 10 p.m. the last thing I said was, ‘I love you, I’ll see you tomorrow,’ ” Rachel said.

Spiegel was a giver. She raised money for children’s hospitals. One of her best friends was a Holocaust survivor and she traveled with her to raise Holocaust awareness. Another passion was supporting the educational reach of the Challenger Space Science Centers; her close friend was the widow of one of the Challenger astronauts.

“No one was as fiercely loyal to her friends and family,” Rachel said. “I hope I can learn from my mom how to be the same way.”

READ MORE: ‘She lit up every room’ — mother, grandmother who treated all like a friend

Judy Spiegel, 65, died in the collapse of Champlain Towers South condo on June 24, 2021.
Judy Spiegel, 65, died in the collapse of Champlain Towers South condo on June 24, 2021.

Honoring the Israeli rescuers

Kevin Spiegel, 66, said that over 40 years of marriage to Spiegel, she was the yin to his yang.

“Now I’m incomplete,” he said. “The pain of missing her has actually gotten more intense. I’m in a tunnel and there’s no exit.”

Kevin, who lost all the couple’s possessions in the collapse — “and we had a lot, we were practically hoarders” — is renting in Coconut Grove and seeing a therapist.

“The problem with therapy is it’s so painful, and I cry and cry,” he said. “Once you do the session you’re hurting all day.”

He has honored Spiegel by giving back to everyone who was so kind to the family. Kevin and his kids — Rachel, Michael and Joshua, who all work in the medical field — went to Tel Aviv to host a dinner for the Israel Defense Forces urban rescue team that deployed to Surfside.

The night before departing Surfside, Col. Golan Vach went back to the rubble pile specifically to do another search for Spiegel’s body. He found her.

“We are grateful because at that point we feared she would never be recovered,” Kevin said. One of the IDF team’s uniform patches has Judy’s name inscribed on it.

A member of the Israeli search-and-rescue team salutes during a prayer ceremony in front of the rubble left by the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.
A member of the Israeli search-and-rescue team salutes during a prayer ceremony in front of the rubble left by the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

READ MORE: Israeli-backed efforts bring trauma therapy to Surfside

‘Grieving process is nonexistent’

The beach was a magnet for Pablo Rodriguez and his family. Their nirvana. Every weekend, a ritual: soak in the ocean at Champlain Towers South, take a break for lunch, wade back in. His son, John Paul, 7, liked to build sandcastles.

But Rodriguez has not been to the beach — any beach — since the collapse of the condo one year ago. His mother, Elena Blasser, and grandmother Elena Chavez — known as las dos Elenas — died in the catastrophic failure of the building.

They were in unit 1211, where Blasser lived with husband Joseph. He was in Panama visiting a sick relative, so Chavez had come over from her Westchester house to stay with her daughter.

“If there was a reason or if I believed in fate, I could accept it,” Rodriguez said. “As it is, my progress through the grieving process is nonexistent. The past year feels like one really long, horrible day.

“The Uvalde school shooting crushed me. I thought about those parents and how their grief will be never-ending.”

The family was exceptionally close. Chavez immigrated from Cuba to New York to Puerto Rico to Miami with her daughter and lived next door when Blasser’s sons were growing up.

As grandmother and great-grandmother to J.P., they doted on the boy, taking him on excursions to Gatorland and Disney World and the Everglades, to the movies or out for ice cream. They were scheduled to go on a bike-shopping expedition on Thursday, the day after the collapse.

Elena Chavez, left, and Elena Blasser with their great grandson/grandson, John Rodriguez. Elena Chavez, 87, and her daughter, Elena Blasser, 64, died in the condo collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.
Elena Chavez, left, and Elena Blasser with their great grandson/grandson, John Rodriguez. Elena Chavez, 87, and her daughter, Elena Blasser, 64, died in the condo collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

Blasser was a retired school teacher and assistant principal. Chavez was still working as a travel agent. They had big plans for a trip to Turkey.

“The two Elenas were always together,” Rodriguez said.

Mother talked about Champlain Towers’ issues

He had heard his mother complain about maintenance problems at the building and mismanagement of association fees. He regrets not acting on those concerns.

“We’re going to be left with unanswered questions: Why did the city of Surfside tell the condo board the building was fine? Why did the engineers who saw the damage not speak up for immediate repairs? Why was the construction next door allowed to proceed so close to the pool deck wall?” said Rodriguez, who is a lawyer. “The federal investigation will likely find a variety of causes. No one will be held accountable.”

READ MORE: House of Cards: How decades of problems converged the night the tower fell

He has been an advocate for reform of the state’s condo construction, inspection and governance laws.

“So much more needs to be done by our legislators, especially on compliance and enforcement,” he said. “It’s such a mess with the condo boards. They are like little fiefdoms, and they are not engineers or experts on concrete restoration.”

‘I feel completely drained’

Family therapy sessions helped. J.P. did not want to talk or play for months. Both he and his dad are more expressive now.

Pablo Rodriguez and his son, John Paul Rodriguez, are photographed at their home on Monday, June 13, 2022 in Miami, Fla. Pablo’s mom, Elena Blasser, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, were killed when the Champlain Towers South collapsed in Surfside on June 24, 2021.
Pablo Rodriguez and his son, John Paul Rodriguez, are photographed at their home on Monday, June 13, 2022 in Miami, Fla. Pablo’s mom, Elena Blasser, and grandmother, Elena Chavez, were killed when the Champlain Towers South collapsed in Surfside on June 24, 2021.

“I haven’t been able to get back on the Peloton. I feel completely drained, like I’ve been carrying a weight up a hill,” he said. “Reading is a distraction but not much relief.

“The closest thing to solace is seeing my son happy. I have certain flashbacks, like my mom holding J.P. in the ocean when he was 2 months old.

“But when I feel happy, it’s fleeting. I feel disassociated, like I’m looking at myself from the outside and it’s not really me.”

Rodriguez is going to take J.P. to Legoland and Universal Studios, because that’s what his mother and grandmother would have done this summer. And maybe he’ll take him to the beach. Soon but not yet. He is skipping Friday’s vigil and memorial.

“I’ll see the hole where the building used to be and I’ll regress,” he said. “I’ve got two holes in my soul and I don’t know how to fill them.”