Friends, family describe dead and missing in Florida condo collapse
Authorities have identified four of the nine people confirmed to have died after the collapse of a 12-story beachfront condominium in Florida. About 150 others remained missing Sunday as rescuers painstakingly searched through the rubble of the Champlain Towers South.
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 said the dead include Stacie Dawn Fang, Manuel LaFont, and Antonio and Gladys Lozano.
Stacie Dawn Fang
Stacie Dawn Fang, 54, was with her son Jonah Handler, a teenager, when the building collapsed. They lived on the tenth floor. The boy’s small hand waved through the wreckage as a man 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 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.”
Asked about the boy’s condition, a family friend, Lisa Mozloom told the AP “He will be fine. He’s a miracle.”
Manuel LaFont, 54, was a proud father, a baseball fan and a business consultant who lived on the building’s eighth floor. He had a 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter with his ex-wife Adriana LaFont, the Miami Herald reported.
Adriana asked her friends on Facebook to pray the rosary for Manny before his body was found. “So many memories inside the walls that are no more today, forever engraved experiences in the heart,” she wrote.
LaFont, a Houston native, coached his son’s baseball team, the Astros, at North Shore Park, just a mile away from the Champlain. He was a parishioner at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Miami Beach. The parish’s school parents gathered Saturday afternoon to pray for LaFont and his neighbors who were still missing.
An alumnus of Sharpstown High School in Houston, LaFont had worked across Latin America and the Caribbean for a manufacturing firm, leading a division focusing on roadway safety that built crash cushions and moveable barriers, the Herald reported.
“I got into this industry specifically because I don’t want to sell widgets. I want to help people. I want to do something good in this world,” he said at an industry conference in 2016. “When I die, I want to say that my life meant something.”
Antonio and Gladys Lozano
Antonio and Gladys Lozano lived on the ninth floor. The two had known each other over 60 years and would have celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary on July 21.
Their sons told WPLG-TV that the couple had joked neither wanted to die before the other, because neither wanted to live without the other. Their one solace, the brothers said, was that they were together when they died.
Authorities confirmed on Saturday that Antonio, 83, and Gladys, 79, were among the dead.
Sergio Lozano said he had dinner with his parents hours before the collapse. He 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.”
Tzvi and Ingrd “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 “Arnie” 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.”
Claudio and Maria Obias Bonnefoy
The worried daughters of a Chilean man and his wife who lived on the 10th floor of Champlain Towers South arrived at the scene with growing anger over what they’re learning about problems with the building before it collapsed.
Sisters Anne Marie and Pascale Bonnefoy said their father Claudio Bonnefoy and his Filipino-American wife Maria Obias Bonnefoy had been spending little time in the apartment, and probably wouldn’t have been among the missing if not for the pandemic.
Bonnefoy, an 85-year-old lawyer, is the second cousin of former Chilean President and High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and both he and his wife worked for international organizations, they said.
“We are just processing all this but this is starting to make me angry because reports from years ago reporting serious structural damage to the building are little by little being known,” said Pascale Bonnefoy. “Notifications that have been ignored, or even that the building was built on wetlands, that the construction was with sand and that the salt began to corrode the iron.”
Richard Augustine, 77, was just hours away from a flight to Chicago, where his daughter, Debbie Hill, had planned to pick him up at the airport.
Instead, she watched video of the condo collapse, and could see her dad’s upper-floor unit plummeting, then disappearing in a cloud of dust.
“That was pretty scary to watch,” she told Chicago’s ABC7. “Immediately I tried to call him and his phone went straight to voicemail.”
Augustine had just visited his son in California, and went back to his Florida home to repack for the weekend visit with his daughter.
Augustine grew up in the Chicago area and lived in the suburbs before moving to Florida, where he worked in the air freight industry and planned to retire in the fall.
Hill told FOX32 in Chicago that her father shared the apartment with a roommate, who also was still missing.
The Mora family
Juan Mora Jr., who works for Morton Salt in Chicago, had been staying with his parents, Juan and Ana Mora, when the building collapsed.
Immigrants from Cuba and devout Catholics, they took their family on missionary trips to the Caribbean to build churches and bridges, said Jeanne Ugarte, a close friend of Ana’s. Later, they became like second parents to Juan Jr.’s friends in Chicago, where their son has managed East Coast distribution for Morton Salt’s road salt business, his friend Matthew Kaade said.
When the Moras came to visit, they would take all of Juan Jr.’s friends out to dinner. In Florida, they introduced Kaade to Cuban coffee and food, he said. “They were the kind of people that even if someone says ‘I’m not hungry,’ they would just continue to order food to make sure you had a full belly,” he said.
Kaade, who graduated with Mora from Loyala University Chicago in 2011, said he texted this month saying he was planning to return to Chicago in early August.
“I was super excited to get him to come back,” said Kaade. He described Juan Jr., an avid Chicago Cubs fan, as genuine and someone his friends could always rely on “to be real and straight” with them.
No matter what happens, a group of friends will travel down to Florida — hopefully to celebrate with Juan Jr. and his family when they are found — but sure to celebrate him either way, because that’s what he would have wanted, Kaade said.
“No matter the outcome, it will be a celebration of his life,” he said. “I keep saying your story is not over … I have hope that it will be Juan continuing his own story, but no matter what, I’ll be there to be one of the many to help carry it on,” he said.
Among the missing was Linda March, who eagerly traded a cramped New York apartment for fresh air and ocean views after surviving a COVID-19 infection.
She rented Penthouse 4, whose interior was exposed, with bunk beds and an office chair still intact, just inside the broken edge where the rest of the 12-story building crumbled into a pile of debris.
March had been using the second bedroom of the furnished apartment as her office, best friend Rochelle Laufer told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Another friend, Dawn Falco, said they had been talking on the phone until just two hours before the disaster, and immediately began searching for word on her friend, who she said never leaves the house “without a smile.”
“My heart is breaking as I see the office chair that she just purchased next to the bunkbeds,” Falco said.
Florida was a new start for the 58-year-old attorney. In the past decade, she’d lost her sister and mother to cancer, her father died a few years later and she and her husband divorced. She had no children.
“She would say to me, ‘I’m all alone. I don’t have family,’ and I would say, ‘You’re my sister, you don’t have to be born sisters. And I said you always have me’,” Laufer recounted through tears.
Laufer said March loved the ocean views but hated the incessant noise from nearby construction and had decided to break her lease. “She was looking for another apartment when this happened,” Laufer said sadly.
Still, Laufer had been planning to visit her friend this fall.
“I joked I’m going to take the top bunk when I visit,” she said.