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Family: Last victim ID'd in Florida condo building collapse

Family: Last victim ID'd in Florida condo building collapse

A relative says the last victim of the Florida building collapse has been identifiedBy KELLI KENNEDY Associated PressJuly 26, 2021, 9:58 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleFORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The final victim of the condo building collapse in Florida has been identified, a relative said Monday, more than a month after the middle-of-the-night catastrophe that ultimately claimed 98 lives and became the largest non-hurricane related emergency response in state history.Estelle Hedaya, an outgoing 54-year-old with a love of travel, was the last to be identified, ending what her relatives described as a torturous four-week wait. Her younger brother, Ikey Hedaya, confirmed the news to The Associated Press. A funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.It comes just days after rescuers officially concluded the painstaking and emotionally heavy task of removing layers of dangerous debris and pulling out dozens of bodies.“She always mentioned God anytime she was struggling with anything,” he said, adding he was drawing strength from God, just as he’d seen his sister do in troubling times.The site of the June 24 collapse at the oceanside Champlain Towers South has been mostly swept flat, the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists and rabbis are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, seeking to recover any additional remains and personal items.In the end, crews found no evidence that anyone who was found dead had survived the initial collapse, Fire Chief Alan Cominsky has said.Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms. They went through more than 14,000 tons (13,000 metric tonnes) of broken concrete and rebar before finally declaring the mission complete.“For the past 33 days they have searched the rubble as if they were searching for one of their own,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said during a news conference Monday.Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s urban search-and-rescue team pulled away from the site Friday in a convoy of firetrucks and other vehicles. Officials saluted their bravery, saying they had worked 12-hour shifts while camping out at the site and also dealing with the heavy emotional burden.The tragedy that befell the tiny town of Surfside prompted an outpouring of love from far and wide where locals donated their homes and apartments to victims, children colored cards for rescuers, piles and piles of food were donated and tens of millions of dollars raised for the victims.The mayor expressed hope that those kindnesses would be “a powerful and lasting reminder of how deeply connected we truly are in the best of times and in the worst of times.”The dead included members of the area’s large Orthodox Jewish community, the sister of Paraguay’s first lady, her family and their nanny, along with an entire family of four that included a local salesman, his wife and their two young daughters, 4 and 11, who were buried in the same coffin.Linda March, a 58 year-old attorney and fellow former New Yorker, was close friends with Hedaya. Oddly the two were the last three victims to be identified, along with 24-year-old Anastasia Gromova of Canada.Leah Sutton, who knew Hedaya since birth and considered herself a second mother to her, said she and March were both “forces to be reckoned with.”“My two beautiful amazing fearless friends saved for last, have to believe there was a reason for them to be last,” she said Monday. “Estelle’s love of God was unbelievable and unwavering.”Meanwhile, it’s unclear what will happen at the collapse site. A judge presiding over several lawsuits filed in the collapse aftermath wants the property sold at market rates, which would bring in an estimated $100 million or more. Some condo owners want to rebuild, and others say a memorial should be erected to remember the dead.——Associated Press writer David Fischer contributed from Miami(asterisk)

Families of last victims in condo say waiting is agony

Families of last victims in condo say waiting is agony

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Estelle Hedaya was the outspoken life of the party who loved travel and fashion. She lived on the sixth floor and quickly connected with fellow former New Yorker Linda March, an adventurous traveler who was renting out the penthouse.Nearly a month later, the two close friends are among the last of those missing in the Champlain Towers South collapse, along with Anastasia Gromova, a 24-year-old who had just been accepted to a program teaching English to students in Japan. The young go-getter was visiting friends at the Surfside condo for one last hurrah.“She always wanted to do as much as possible with her life,” her father Sergiy Gromov said Monday. “It seems like she knew that it was not going to last long.”Miami-Dade County authorities said at least 97 people died from the June 24 collapse. As of Monday, 95 of those victims had been identified, with potentially at least one more person buried in the rubble.”The weirdest thing about this whole thing is that Estelle’s best friend in the whole building is Linda,” said Hedaya’s boss Joe Murphy.Leah Sutton, a close friend of both women who celebrated holidays and birthdays with them, said it’s doubly heartbreaking.“Friends in life and souls in death,” said Sutton, who said she is struggling to make sense of it all. “Maybe Linda and Estelle are showing the way to heaven to all the other victims.”The recovery efforts feel painfully slow for their families as it stretches into a fourth week. Officials said Sunday they are “working to dewater the lower levels of the collapse,” lamenting it’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify victims during this phase of the search. They are relying heavily on the medical examiner and highly technical processes to identify remains.March, a bubbly and outgoing 58-year-old attorney, was always eager to strike up a conversation. She loved the beach and was looking for a new start in Miami. 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.Back in New York, her two best friends, as close as sisters, wait in agony.“It feels like the wound gets deeper with each day that she is not located,” friend Dawn Falco said. “After falling victim to such a horrendous tragedy, she at least deserves to be placed to rest with dignity.”Hedaya, chief operating officer for jewelry company the Continental Buying Group, was feeling especially confident after a recent weight loss, her boss Joe Murphy said. To celebrate, she bought a new red Lexus, just two months earlier. Her favorite color.The 54-year-old also had a blog called “Follow the Toes,” where she documented her international travels, foodie delights, dieting success and favorite spas.Like March and Hedaya, Anastasia Gromova also loved to travel, and enjoyed good food and wine, her mother said. Although decades apart in age, the women were all fiercely independent.Gromova was visiting with 23-year-old Michelle Pazos at her father Miguel’s apartment. Michelle’s body was found 10 days ago and police said the body of Miguel Pazos, 55, was found July 8.Gromova’s parents and sister, who live in Canada and immediately flew to Florida after the collapse, still sit and wait. They broke down in sobs Monday as they shared the agony, watching other victims’ relatives, alongside whom they waited for weeks, return home after their loved one was identified.“We are still waiting,” her mother, Larysa Gromova, said through tears. “It’s too much, it’s taking too long.””We are the last ones,” he said. “It’s terrible, it’s painful.”Anna Gromova described her sister as a bright star, who always knew what she wanted and went after it.As the days pass, her family struggles with the whys.“Why her, why us, why this building, why today, why not yesterday, just so many questions,” her mother said quietly.“She went on a two-week vacation. She was a young girl. She had all her life in front of her,” said the grieving mother. “Such a sudden thing, so many buildings in Miami. It had to be hers for the one week she was here.”

Awaiting news, families of condo victims bond together

Awaiting news, families of condo victims bond together

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — At the Seaview Hotel in Surfside, a vast and once impersonal ballroom has become a refuge — a shared space of hope and sorrow where grieving families comfort each other during the agonizing wait for news of relatives trapped inside a collapsed condo building.Twice a day, every day, for more than two weeks, relatives of the 79 who perished and 61 still missing have huddled in the spacious room, a new daily routine thrust upon them by an unfathomable disaster.Many members of this tiny community forged in tragedy have started arriving to the meetings early and staying late. They linger in small groups, talking. They hug each other, bring each other water and tissues. On days when information is scarce, rescuers, including those from other countries, circulate through the room, offering more detailed tidbits.Officials announced on Wednesday that they were switching their mission from rescue to recovery, but there is no plan to stop the private briefings for the families, said Maggie Castro, a Miami-Dade firefighter and paramedic who keeps relatives updated and has forged her own connections with them.“Obviously, this is a huge tragedy, but if I can find some kind of bright spot in this whole thing, it’s to be with these families, watching their emotions come and go and … watching them evolve through their stages and then also watching them bond,” Castro said.Soriya Cohen’s husband, Brad Cohen, is still missing. Her brother-in-law Gary Cohen was found Thursday, and her two children are begging rescuers to search a similar grid line to find their father.“The community outpours so much love,” she said, recalling how volunteers wrapped her in a blanket, brought her food and coffee in the initial days after the collapse and “surrounded me with so much emotional support.”She still has the blanket, she said in a text Friday.Rachel Spiegel, whose mother, Judy, is still missing, said she, her father and brother also have made connections with other families inside the room, but she stopped short of calling it comforting.“I don’t know if I would define it as comfort yet because we still don’t know where my mom is. She’s still missing.”While sobs could be heard in the background Wednesday night as officials announced they would shift from rescue to recovery, largely dashing any hope of survivors, some families said they won’t feel different until they have final word on their loved ones.“It’s hard to digest,” Spiegel said in a phone call. “Many people did say they feel the shift. For us, we just want to find my mom and be reunited with her. We’re still hoping for the best. We’re going to have this shift once we find her and are reunited with her.”The Cohen family said not having any updates about Brad Cohen was agonizing.“I don’t think the terminology of rescue versus recovery matters. It’s semantics,” said Soriya Cohen. “They will find people in whatever state they are in, however it’s termed.”Other families told rescuers they did feel a sense of finality once workers started searching for victims instead of survivors.“There has been a sort of shift I think toward acceptance but also obviously with that comes some sadness,” said Castro, adding that the families are physically and emotionally exhausted. “It’s a lot, a lot of emotional roller coasters that they’ve been on, just trying to stay positive and hold out the wait,” she said.The family briefings are surrounded by heavy security, with various checkpoints to protect their privacy.Organizations set up at a line of tables in the room offer everything from free international phone calls and counseling to clothing and housing. Several snowbirds are offering their Surfside homes to displaced survivors, said Rabbi Yakov Saacks, a family friend who flew from New York to comfort the Cohens. The owner of a 16-unit building opened it up rent-free to Surfside survivors for the month of July.Huge platters of catered food sit day and night, including glatt kosher meals, all donated by community members longing to ease the pain.Meanwhile, Support Surfside has raised $2 million for victims with another $2 million pledged, and GoFundMe has separately raised $1.7 million for various families.The nearby Shul has been transformed into a huge clothing and dry goods facility for families to pick up items while they wait.Saacks described the ballroom as painfully quiet at times.“While families were either sitting or standing together, they were, for the most part, just silently and painfully waiting for news,” he said. “While some families would welcome any news at that stage, others would welcome only good news.”

Tale of rescue after falling several floors in Fla. collapse

Tale of rescue after falling several floors in Fla. collapse

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When 16-year-old rising volleyball star Deven Gonzalez was pulled from the rubble of her Miami condo building, her initial reaction amid the shock was to tell firefighters that she had to compete in a major tournament in a few days.The teen’s entire world revolved around volleyball. She played beach volleyball, on her high school team and with a competitive travel club team. From her hospital bed where she’s undergone multiple surgeries for a broken femur, she apologized profusely to her coach for missing their final practice.“I said, ‘Let’s focus on you right now and not volleyball,’” said club coach Amy Morgan, who described the teen as extremely determined, passionate and unrelenting in pursuing her goals.Gonzalez lived with her parents on the ninth floor of Champlain Towers South. She and her mother, Andrea Gonzalez, fell several stories before being rescued on the fifth floor, she told her coach. Her mother was among the survivors pulled from the rubble and is still hospitalized with serious injuries, Morgan told The Associated Press.At least two dozen were killed in the building’s partial collapse Thursday. Deven’s father, attorney Edgar Gonzalez, is among the more than 120 still missing. The family’s eldest daughter, Taylor, who was not in the building at the time of the collapse, has been a source of strength for her mom and sister, according to Morgan and Joslyn Varona, a family friend who has posted frequent updates on Facebook.“This is a strong and wonderful family,” Varona said. “They have a lot of faith.”Deven still hasn’t been able to see her mother because they are in separate parts of the hospital, but she briefly video chatted with her a few days ago on her mother’s birthday when Andrea Gonzalez’s intubation tube was removed, Morgan said.Deven Gonzalez was conscious when the building collapsed and throughout her traumatic rescue, her coach said. She remembers the details vividly and is having trouble sleeping, haunted by nightmares.“I don’t know if she’s completely come to terms with everything. She has and she hasn’t,” said Morgan, who added that Deven was unaware of the extent of the tragedy and the worldwide attention it’s received.“She says, ‘My dad’s still missing. My dad’s still missing,’” Morgan said. “She gets really choked up about it.”The teen even took her first few steps recently.“It’s going to be a nasty, hard painful road, but I think she can do it,” Morgan said.Andrea Gonzalez will undergo surgery for her extensive injuries this week, but has been responsive when asked questions, Varona said in her Facebook posts.“There has not been any news on Edgar,” Varona wrote. “We are still praying and hoping for a miracle.”Varona said she has set up a letter writing campaign to encourage the family.Edgar and Andrea Gonzalez were extremely involved with Deven’s volleyball goals, the coach said. Her mom was like the team therapist, always listening and encouraging the girls.Edgar is a kind, gentle and jolly father, Morgan said. After one tournament, he helped prepare a massive BBQ feast for the team. The family was about to leave for Orlando when the building collapsed. Edgar was so excited he’d been packed for two weeks.“They’re so loving, so supportive,” Morgan said. “I see a lot of (Deven’s) strength coming from her parents.”The tragedy has been difficult on the closeknit volleyball team, which met for practice Thursday night and allowed parents to participate. Everyone sat in a circle and held hands as they prayed. Many cried.“Deven is such a hardworking and loving person,” her teammate Liyah Deveaux said Sunday. “We can’t wait for her to get back on her feet. We love and miss her so much.”A GoFundMe site has raised more than $100,000 for the family.“We’re really trying to help and be supportive, but we feel absolutely helpless that we can’t make it better,” Morgan said. “Every single one of us would be in there digging through the rubble. If we could be there, we’d be doing it.”

Joy and sorrow amid boy's dramatic rescue, mother's death

Joy and sorrow amid boy's dramatic rescue, mother's death

The heartening rescue of a boy from the rubble of a partially collapsed condo building outside Miami has been tempered by grief over his mother’s deathBy KELLI KENNEDY Associated PressJune 25, 2021, 8:48 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleSURFSIDE, Fla. — It was just a small hand waving through the wreckage, yet one of the few hopeful moments amid a largely fruitless effort to find survivors.Nicholas Balboa was walking his dog on the beach when he heard the rumbling he thought was thunder, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday. Sensing something was wrong, he dropped off his dog and hurried back outside.Residents were flooding the streets and pointing at a gaping hole and dust cloud where a seaside condominium tower had collapsed. Fire and rescue crews had not yet arrived, and it was eerily quiet on the back side of the building. As he began to take photos of the wreckage, he heard what sounded like a child’s voice.Balboa, 31, climbed through a pile of glass and rebar in his flip-flops, desperate to get closer.“Keep yelling so I can follow your voice,” Balboa said. He soon saw a hand waving from the rubble.The boy, Jonah Handler, said he and his mother, Stacie Fang, were the only ones in the condo that had imploded when part of the building went down. He kept asking about his mom. Balboa and a stranger tried desperately to clear away the rubble surrounding Jonah but it was too heavy. It looked like a wall or support beam, Balboa said.“I’ll be right back. I’m going to get help,” Balboa said, trying to comfort the boy.“Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me,” the boy cried.“He was absolutely terrified. The sheer terror in his voice, that fact that his mother, that he can’t find her,” said Balboa, who was in town from Arizona visiting his father.Video of Jonah’s rescue has played on repeat in the news, tugging hearts as rescuers with flashlights slowly helped him out from under a pile of cement and twisted steel and carried him away on a stretcher.Asked about his condition, Lisa Mozloom, a friend of the family told the AP, “He will be fine. He’s a miracle.” Mozloom said Jonah had been taken to the hospital at one point but said he was “stable.”Authorities have said at least four people died in the building collapse, and with 159 still unaccounted for they fear the death toll will rise sharply. They have not publicly released the identities of the deceased, but Mozloom confirmed Fang’s death.“There are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie,” members of her family said in a statement that Mozloom released on their behalf. They said they were deeply grateful to those who had reached out and that “the many heartfelt words of encouragement and love have served as a much needed source of strength during this devastating time.”The family requested privacy “on behalf of Stacie’s son, Jonah,” saying it needed time to “to grieve and to try to help each other heal.”Balboa said he was heartbroken to learn of Fang’s death.“I lost my mom recently, so I know how it’s going to be,” he said.———Associated Press journalist Lisa J. Adams Wagner in Decatur, Georgia, contributed to this report.

Florida beach town writes Amazon TV series to lure tourists

Florida beach town writes Amazon TV series to lure tourists

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Remember that longing you felt after an episode of “Sex and the City” to shop at the characters’ favorite New York haunts and drink cosmopolitans at the same bars? Or that sense of wanderlust for the seaside cliffs of Ireland after watching “Game of Thrones?”Hollywood’s flattering spotlight has put small towns on the map, like Wilmington, North Carolina, from “Dawson’s Creek” and the woods of Senoia, Georgia, from “The Walking Dead.” And that’s exactly what travel marketers in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida, were hoping to capitalize on when they commissioned an original, scripted TV series, seeking to draw quarantine-weary tourists to the area’s sugar sand beaches.“Life’s Rewards” aired on Amazon Prime last month. The eight-episode show is based on a charming yet cavalier wealth manager who loses his money and uses travel rewards points to stay at the posh, pink Don CeSar hotel while rebuilding his life.Each episode is only eight to 14 minutes long, and was filmed using a local production company, director and actors. The series cost roughly a million dollars to create, with contributions from the city and the state’s tourism arm.Some of the “ad” spots woven throughout the dialogue are obvious, like the random episode about the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center. But the characters quickly pivot back to plot-forwarding dialogue. It’s a quick-hit ad versus the sustained 15- to 30-second hard sell of conventional commercials.At other times, the settings feel natural, like the gay nightclub Blur or a tour of the colorful WhimzeyLand “bowling ball house” in an episode featuring a scavenger hunt. Even the countless gratuitous beach shots mostly feel believable.“I’m watching something and I’m drawn into the show because of the story line, but also the places I’m seeing in front of me,” said Steve Hayes, president of Visit St. Pete Clearwater, who noted that he and his wife frequently talked about visiting Wyoming while watching their favorite show, “Yellowstone.”While sometimes awkward, the characters in “Life’s Rewards” refer to every destination in the scene by name. There were no fake dive bars or coffee shops.“You start to build, ‘Hey, this looks like a really cool place I want to visit,’ and it’s in the background,” said Hayes. “It’s not in the front where you want to go through and hit the fast-forward button.”It’s too soon to gauge whether the series has impacted tourism, or even how widely it was viewed.The hospitality industry was hit hard by the pandemic, and tourist towns are eager to seize on the new willingness to travel. That’s put more pressure on destinations to market outside the box.“Every single destination in the world is now looking for that tourism boom. I think it’s more important than it ever has been,” said Alexandra Delf, executive vice president for London-based Grifco, a travel marketing firm.Movie- and TV-inspired travel is so popular that the firm is using pandemic binge shows to promote its biggest clients. Promotional ads note that scenes from Netflix’s “Bridgerton” were filmed near The Gainsborough Bath Spa. “Game of Thrones” packages at Slieve Donard Resort and Spa tout tours where notable scenes were filmed nearby, including Robb Stark’s battle camp and “Red Wedding.”With travel halted during the pandemic, scenic destinations felt even more aspirational.“A lot of what we do in travel marketing is selling that dream of relaxation,” said Delf. “It gives them something to look forward to.”The production company behind the Florida show said scripted shows are a new genre for travel marketing, and that they’re already in talks to shoot some for other cities in the state.“We don’t want people to feel marketed to. We want them to feel lost in the story line and get invested in the characters like any other show on streaming or TV, but we’re providing a positive context for our destination,” said Brianne Maciejowski, director of film and video for Odyssey Studios.Consumers retain far more from branded content compared to traditional advertising, she said. The Florida TV series ended with a cliffhanger, so a sequel is still possible.“Part of our business model is to help destinations find a voice in this entertainment-first world,” said Maciejowski. “There’s a lot more in our future.”

Driver says he is devastated by fatal Pride parade crash

Driver says he is devastated by fatal Pride parade crash

The 77-year-old driver who accidentally slammed his truck into fellow members of a gay chorus group says he was devastated by the crash at the start of a Pride parade in South FloridaBy KELLI KENNEDY Associated PressJune 21, 2021, 10:31 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleFORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The 77-year-old driver who accidentally slammed his truck into fellow members of a gay chorus group, killing one and injuring two others, said Monday that he was devastated by the crash at the start of a Pride parade in South Florida.Fred Johnson, a member of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus, a tight knit ensemble of about 25 mostly older men, suddenly accelerated forward in his pickup, killing James Fahy, 75, and injuring Jerry Vroegh, 57, who was released from the hospital Monday. Gary Keating was treated at the scene for minor injuries, according to a statement from Fort Lauderdale police.“I love my Chorus family and the community and would never do anything to intentionally harm anyone. Please know that I hold my fellow Chorus member, Jim Fahy, in my heart forever and offer my condolences to his friends and family,” Johnson said in a statement.Fort Lauderdale police also said Monday that all evidence indicates it was a terrible accident, noting Johnson was fully cooperating with the investigation and there was no evidence that drugs or alcohol were involved.Crowd-goers waved flags and Mardi Gras beads Saturday night, anticipating what should have been a celebration of life and love South Florida gay community. But festivities quickly turned into terror as gleeful cheers were drowned by the sounds of sirens and crying children.Witness Michael Albetta, regional director for Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus, was about to walk the parade route alongside U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch when he heard the truck’s engine unexpectedly revving.“You hear the engine roaring and galloping with more speed. All of a sudden you heard ‘thump, thump, thump,’ and those were the bodies he was hitting and he just crashed right through the nursery,” Albetta said.He said the truck narrowly missed U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s vehicle, somehow jumped the curb and came straight down on the victims, before careening into a fence on the opposite side of the road.In the initial aftermath, parade participants and witnesses didn’t know want to think. A visibly shaken Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said it was a terrorist act on the gay community. On Sunday, he said he was traumatized by what he witnessed and clarified it was an accident.The parade route turned into pandemonium as participants and witnesses pieced together what had happened. Parade goers waiting at the end of the route heard the commotion and were frantically calling friends near the accident at the front of the route asking if they should flee.A heavy police presence already secured the parade route, so there was an immediate onslaught of blaring sirens and flashing lights.“Children saw this, and they were in shock and they started crying because they saw people on the ground with the blood coming out. It was horrible,” said Albetta.Wilton Manors is a tight-knit community near Fort Lauderdale with a vibrant downtown filled with shops, where people line up for Rosie’s famous hamburgers or to gossip and drink at Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar.June is Pride Month, commemorating a June 1969 uprising that followed a police raid targeting gay patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York. It was a catalyst for the gay rights movement.

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