FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A spacious and previously impersonal ballroom at the Seaview Hotel in Surfside has become a shelter — a shared space of hope and anguish where bereaved families console each other while waiting for word of relatives trapped within a collapsed condo building.
For more than two weeks, family of the 79 who died and 61 who remain missing have congregated in the spacious room twice a day, every day, a new daily pattern thrust upon them by an unfathomable calamity.
Many members of this beleaguered community have begun arriving early and lingering late at meetings. They congregate in small groups and converse. They hug and deliver water and tissues to each other. On days when information is scant, rescuers from several countries circulate the room, delivering more comprehensive information.
Officials stated on Wednesday that their aim will shift from rescue to recovery, but Maggie Castro, a Miami-Dade firefighter and paramedic who keeps relatives updated and has formed her own bonds with them, said there are no plans to cease the private briefings for the families.
“Obviously, this is a horrible tragedy, but if there’s any silver lining, it’s being with these families, watching their emotions come and go and… watching them progress through their stages and then also watching them bond,” Castro added.
Brad Cohen, Soriya Cohen’s spouse, is still missing. Her brother-in-law Gary Cohen was rescued on Thursday, and her two children are pleading with rescuers to look for their father along a similar grid line.
“In the days after the collapse, the community outpours so much love,” she said, recounting how volunteers covered her in a blanket, brought her food and coffee, and “surrounded me with so much emotional support.”
She claimed in a text on Friday that she still has the blanket.
Rachel Spiegel, whose mother, Judy, is still missing, said she, her father, and brother had developed relationships with other families inside the room as well, although she didn’t go so far as to call it reassuring.
“I’m not sure I’d call it comfort just now because we still don’t know where my mother is. She has yet to be found.”
While sobs could be heard in the background as officials declared the move from rescue to recovery, thus putting an end to any hope of survivors, several families stated they won’t feel any differently until they had definitive word on their loved ones.
In a phone interview, Spiegel remarked, “It’s difficult to digest.” “Many folks have stated that they have seen a change. We simply want to find my mother and reunite with her. We’re still holding out hope. Once we discover her and reunite with her, we’re going to have this shift.”
It was difficult for the Cohen family not to have any updates about Brad Cohen.
“I don’t believe the distinction between rescue and recovery is significant. Soriya Cohen explained, “It’s semantics.” “They’ll find folks in whatever state they’re in,” says the narrator.
Other families told rescuers that once workers began looking for victims instead of survivors, they felt a sense of closure.
“I think there has been a change toward acceptance, but with that obviously comes sadness,” Castro said, adding that the families are physically and emotionally weary. “They’ve been on a lot of emotional roller coasters,” she said, “just trying to be positive and hold out the wait.”
The family briefings are heavily guarded, with multiple checkpoints to ensure their privacy.
Organizations set up stations throughout the area, offering anything from free international phone calls and counseling to clothing and lodging. Rabbi Yakov Saacks, a family friend who traveled in from New York to console the Cohens, stated that other snowbirds are offering their Surfside houses to displaced survivors. For the month of July, the owner of a 16-unit building offered rent-free housing to Surfside survivors.
Huge platters of catered food, including glatt kosher dinners, sit day and night, all donated by community members hoping to alleviate the suffering.
Meanwhile, Support Surfside has raised $2 million for victims and has offered another $2 million, while GoFundMe has raised $1.7 million for various families.
The neighboring Shul has been converted into a massive clothing and dry goods store where families may shop while they wait.
At times, the ballroom was excruciatingly quiet, according to Saacks.
“While families sat or stood together, for the most part, they were just silently and sadly waiting for news,” he said. “At that point, some families would welcome any news, while others would only want positive news.”