Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Neighbors pray at the seashore, near the Champlain Towers building, which had partially collapsed, on June 27, 2021, in the city of Surfside, FloridaGiorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
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Shabbat in Surfside

“A quote from Ezekiel was written on a yellow sticky note attached to the photo of a young girl, no more than 10 years old: ‘The Lord searches for you’”

by
Armin Rosen
June 28, 2021
Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Neighbors pray at the seashore, near the Champlain Towers building, which had partially collapsed, on June 27, 2021, in the city of Surfside, FloridaGiorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Saturday afternoon at Surfside: The onlookers at the police barrier were an assortment of the mournful, the merely curious, and of course, the media. Down the beach was a steaming mound, intermittently on fire throughout the day, in which over 150 people were still buried.

At the top of the top of the ruined tower, wedges of fallen concrete were caught in midslide, as if tumbling off the upper precipice of a waterfall. The sun flashed off of reflective vests belonging to firefighters and rescuers working on the pile below, behind a screen of palm trees. From the beach, the wreck rises out of a forest of rustling green.

One woman, in clear emotional distress, gazed toward the wreckage, then stood at the water’s edge contemplating an ocean of swimmers and pleasure craft, then just sat down in the sand, unsure of where to look anymore. A stereotypically Miamian couple in colorful athletic wear faced the ruin in dumbstruck silence.

“One thing that sticks with me is that bunk bed, on the very top floor,” a rail-thin ponytailed man in his early 20s, who introduced himself as Jacob, said. “The floor collapsed right at the foot of the little girls’ bunk bed.” That bed had been pictured in every newspaper in the country, and I was disconcerted to see that it was still there, clearly visible hanging out of a top-story window, another one of the scene’s countless overwhelming improbabilities.

At the plastic police barrier, a woman in earbuds rocked back and forth while facing the collapsed tower, as if in a state of near-possession. A younger woman held an umbrella over her—on her wrist was an orange band, indicating she was permitted to enter the Grand Beach Hotel, where family members of the missing were gathered.

Until the police exclusion zone expanded on Saturday afternoon, rapidly morphing into a formalized network of fencing, traffic barriers, and checkpoints, it was possible to get only a block away from the destroyed Champlain Towers and view the damage in profile. The building’s frontage on Collins Avenue remained eerily intact, a grid of wide balconies leaping out of dull pink concrete. There was deck furniture and plants on the balconies, and blinds half drawn.

The rails on the far balconies begin to twist and contort right at the point the building suddenly vanishes. Behind the far northern wall is nothingness—a mound of rubble reaches to the third story and is being blasted with a firehose, and concerns over the stability of the structure continue. On Saturday, a stench with the heaviness of a physical object filled the air for several blocks, before the wreckage was even visible, a smell that resembled burning gravel, or overheated metal.

Here, as at the beach, the gathered silently reckoned with a revelation of the incomprehensible, beneath a canopy of bright green and an indecisive sky that would soon explode into an afternoon storm. One woman, a South Beach resident named LaTonya Davis, had recently survived breast cancer, an experience that, she told me, had forced her to prepare for both the possibility and the reality of her own death. “The residents, they didn’t know this would happen. They didn’t have a chance to plan.”

The courts at the Surfside tennis center, across Collins from the Champlain, had become a neighborhood in a spontaneous tent city, one small corner of an industrial-scale sprawl of temporary structures and emergency vehicles drawn from fire and rescue teams from every corner of the state, with generators, supply trucks, communication masts, staging areas, and command posts fanned out for nearly a mile. The site had sprouted so quickly that the nets on the tennis courts hadn’t been taken down.

On the fencing facing the street side of the courts was a makeshift shrine, now inaccessible to the public, covered in photos of the missing. One depicted a mother and her 14-year-old child, who, according to the notice, “has muscular dystrophy and cannot walk by himself or even scream for help.” A quote from Ezekiel was written on a yellow sticky note attached to the photo of a young girl, no more than 10 years old: “The Lord searches for you.”

“There are two parts of a medical emergency: the body and the mind,” Zev Neuwirth told me. When I spoke with him on Saturday, two days after the collapse, the emergency was at the point where psychological stressors began to manifest as dangerous physical symptoms. By now, Neuwirth said, his role, and the role of others from the Hatzalah volunteer medic corps, was to “prevent emergencies from getting progressively worse.” He meant “emergencies” among first responders and relatives of the missing. No living human had been pulled from the wreckage since Thursday.

Photos of missing residents are posted at a makeshift memorial at the site of a collapsed building in Surfside, Florida, June 26, 2021

Photos of missing residents are posted at a makeshift memorial at the site of a collapsed building in Surfside, Florida, June 26, 2021Andrea Sarcos/AFP via Getty Images

Neuwirth is a doctor of internal medicine; a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps; a resident of Bal Harbour, just north of Surfside; an alumnus of the Chabad Yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey; and a former specialist reserve officer in the LAPD. He wore a scrublike medical shirt patterned in forest camo along with a beige yarmulke. Medicine is a second career for Neuwirth. Though a longtime paramedic, he left a life in business to get his medical degree after his wife died of cancer a little over a decade ago. He arrived at the Champlain Towers at 6 a.m. on Thursday, five hours after the collapse, and barely left until early Saturday morning—this week he had fulfilled Shabbat through a suspension of the usual rules.

“You have an overwhelming desire to jump in on hands and knees and start picking up concrete,” he told me, “to jump on the pile and find any sign of life.” But there have been no signs of life. At the ruins, when a body is removed, he said, “the only thing I could do is give that last prayer”—baruch dayan haemet, blessed is the true judge, the words uttered when learning of someone’s death. “It fed that need of: At least something was done.”

Outside the site, he wrote prescriptions for Champlain Towers refugees whose medications were now stuck inside the ruins, and made sure they were filled with the help of a dedicated and seemingly unsleeping pharmacist at the Bal Harbour Publix. Neuwirth treated two-dozen patients in the first 24 hours of the crisis alone, some of them survivors of the collapse who hadn’t realized they’d suffered a serious injury until hours later, after the adrenaline spike of the initial disaster wore off.

The heart of the tragedy, the place where emergencies of body and mind unfold in every unbearable moment, is hidden from the view of the media and the general public. It’s a ballroom on the second floor of the Grand Beach, where families are gathered, waiting for word of their missing loved ones. On Sunday, those who felt up to it—and not everyone did—were bused to the site of the disaster, to look upon the mountain of rubble where some of them were sure their loved ones were still alive, just out of reach. They were transported in city buses, with the media on the other side of the Grand View on Collins Avenue snapping photos and video of what was then the clearest human representation of the tragedy: people sitting silently behind glass, consumed by an unknowable agony.

On the second floor, the families are, as one health professional put it to me, “huddled, crying, laughing, remembering,” some of them seated on the floor, some screaming for their lost children. Among the relatives of the over 40 Jews still unaccounted for, there are Haredim and the nonobservant and seemingly every category in between. “It’s never fast enough for the families,” Gabriel Groisman, the mayor of Bal Harbour, told me. “They’re nervous, scared, and in this very difficult holding pattern.”

“The beautiful thing about the room is that they’re in despair together,” one health professional told me.

The Champlain Towers were, as Surfside resident, real estate agent, and relief volunteer Ryan Mermer put it to me, “one of the most affordable on the beach.” It was not a building for snowbirds. The people who owned apartments actually lived there year-round, which explained why so many of them were in South Florida in mid-June. “Socioeconomically speaking, it’s the quote-unquote middle class of Surfside, though that’s by Surfside standards.”

The building represented an attainable version of what for most people is a wild dream: a piece of Miami beachfront real estate, even it was in an unflashy, 40-year-old tower humbled by a brilliant art deco confection on one side, and dwarfed by a surfboard-shaped, glass-clad luxury high-rise on the other. Its residents, and many of the dead, included Jewish immigrants from Venezuela, Argentina, and other places in the Spanish-speaking world. It was a troubled building, as the entire world knows by now, with a leaking swimming pool, ominous shifts in height every year, a foundation in soft limestone bedrock, grievous structural issues, and a condo board rumored to be especially difficult even by Miami Beach standards.

Then again, a lot of high-rises in the area were troubled in some way or another. Corners were often cut, in that everyone-cuts-corners sort of way: “Look, it’s common for Bill Gates to have a secretary who pays a higher percentage in taxes than he does,” Mermer pointed out—although, he added, “you don’t see any other buildings collapsing.”

Later, during a short speech after the Mincha prayer service on Sunday afternoon at The Shul in Bal Harbour, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar repeated words he’d said over Shabbat: “Anyone who gives you a reason is a fool or worse.”

The Champlain building collapse is a slow-motion hell, in a place whose natural beauty and relaxed pace of life seem designed for maximal eeriness, as if to provoke reflection on how something so awful could inhabit the same reality. There are strange juxtapositions everywhere: a crying woman sitting on the floor of a luxury hotel, stroking a therapy dog in a blue bowtie, beneath the beat of the generic soft techno played in every Miami area hotel lobby; an antique white Bentley, another leftover of a normal Miami, parked outside the Grand Beach, which is now a locus of suffering; a boat idling in the ocean directly in front of the wreckage, fishing pole deployed.

“Right now I feel like I haven’t slept in days,” Bal Harbour resident Steve Eisenberg, a tanned retiree from New York told me. “I keep seeing my friend Brad in the rubble.” On a patio behind his condo building we faced an ocean of brilliant turquoise and deep navy, under an ethereal fleet of white clouds, inside a frame of tropical green. Eisenberg had signed the ketubah at Dr. Brad Cohen’s wedding. “All he ever did was acts of kindness for people ... if someone was suffering he didn’t say, ‘call my office on Monday.’”

At daily minyan at The Shul, the red-domed Chabad megacenter across the street from Eisenberg’s apartment, he had befriended another one of the missing, someone who had lost both of his parents to COVID, and his wife to cancer. The Shul and life in Bal Harbour’s Jewish community had helped the man recover something of himself after a year of loss. “He said, ‘I’m so happy to be here, this is my next chapter of happiness.’” Now he was buried under the wreckage, along with one of his children.

Is there any sense to be made out of any of this? “The ways of God are mysterious. We don’t know them, they’re hidden so often,” Rabbi Lipskar said at Mincha.

Eisenberg, a former Manhattan financial professional who watched the World Trade Center fall, and who lost his father at 16, reasoned through the unreasonable by recalling the breaking of glass at the end of a Jewish wedding. “We know that if a Jew can’t be sad at a moment of great happiness, he can’t be happy at a moment of great sadness ... happiness and sadness are right next to each other.”

So it seemed around Surfside. A wing of The Shul currently under construction is now a sprawling collection area for donated items, with signs indicating where soap, diapers, deodorant, kitchenware, and dozens of other categories of items are supposed to go. The makeshift warehouse fills and empties in cycles and contains items of great specificity: A volunteer walked by carrying a box labeled “girl’s socks.” At the Surfside Community Center a couple blocks south, someone had donated boxes of new flip-flops. “Guys, does anyone know if we have syringes?” a young girl at The Shul yelled on Sunday afternoon.

The owner of a $10 million house reportedly handed his keys over to someone in need of lodging, no questions asked. The proprietor of an electronics store gave away 30 cellphones. A local kosher restaurant, Surf-N-Sides, was churning out sandwiches from the kitchen at the poolside cafe at the community center, and kept its supplies under a large donated tent. On the streets, emptied by the network of police checkpoints, herds of therapy dogs roamed in search of people to comfort, and concerned individuals with no connection to any organized group distributed granola bars and bottles of water and large cans of Red Bull.

“We can talk and check hashgachas [kosher certifications] at the same time, right?” one woman at the distinct kosher snack table at the community center said Saturday afternoon, this quality control being her own contribution to her community’s battle against despair. “When I lived in Los Angeles, I didn’t know anyone,” she told me. Surfside, a postage stamp of a town where life revolved around a small number of Jewish institutions for much of the settled population, was different: “Here, I know every face.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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