Search Called Off for Survivors of Florida Condo Collapse

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
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Search and rescue team members climb the debris from the collapse of Champlain Towers South along Collins Avenue in Surfside, Fla., July 7, 2021.
Search and rescue team members climb the debris from the collapse of Champlain Towers South along Collins Avenue in Surfside, Fla., July 7, 2021.Credit: Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

South Florida officials on Wednesday called off the search for survivors of the June condominium collapse in Surfside, saying that there was no longer any hope of pulling anyone alive from the ruins of the 12-story building.

As of early Thursday local time, crews have extracted the remains of 54 people from the mostly concrete and steel rubble of the Champlain Towers South in an around-the-clock search operation. Another 86 people remain missing. The crews have now transitioned to recovering bodies.

The 40-year-old beachfront high-rise pancaked onto itself on June 24. The collapse turned dozens of apartment units into a pile of rubble, causing what one local rabbi described as suffering “of biblical proportions.”

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At least a dozen members of South Florida’s Jewish community are among those whose bodies have been recovered so far. The Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement said that it is thought that about 40 of the dead and missing were Jewish.

Among those whose bodies have been recovered are 66-year-old Ingrid Ainsworth and her husband, Tzvi, 68, a Chabad Hasidic couple who moved to Surfside from Sydney, Australia to be near several of their seven children who had settled in South Florida. Ingrid Ainsworth was originally from Montreal. Her mother, a Holocaust survivor, lived in Miami Beach.

Aryeh Citron, the Ainsworths’ rabbi, told NBC's Channel 6 South Florida affiliate, “Tzvi was a very easy-going fellow, very nice to talk to. Great sense of humor, very chatty.” He “just had a lot to say about his life and the places he’s been and jobs that he’s done and talking about his kids — just a great all-around guy,” the rabbi said, adding that the only thing that could keep him away from the synagogue was his wife, who “was having treatments and often going to doctor.”

Stacie Dawn Fang, who moved to Florida from New Jersey, died in the hospital on June 26 after she and her son, Jonah Handler, were rescued from the wreckage. In a statement, her family said that “there are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie.”

Last Wednesday, Miami-Dade police recovered the body of 56-year-old Bonnie Epstein, a retired real estate investor who had moved to Florida from Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her husband, David, whose body was recovered two days later. According to Chabad.org, the couple “had a passion for water-sports, including kite surfing and jet skiing.”

On June 26 and 27, police identified the remains of Leon and Cristina Oliwkowicz, a couple from Venezuela with ties to Jewish communities in Florida and Chicago. Leon, 80, and Cristina, 74, had sent their children to live in the United States from Venezuela and then joined them as the economic and political crisis worsened in their native country.

Also confirmed dead was 55-year-old Frankie Kleiman, whose body was recovered last Monday. Kleiman, 55, had recently married 46-year-old Ana Ortiz, who lived in the building with her disabled son Luis Bermudez, 26. The new couple lived on the same floor as Kleiman’s brother, Jay Kleiman, a musician who was in town for a funeral, and their mother, Nancy Kress Levin, 76, both of whose bodies were recovered on Monday.

A Star of David on a monument on display last week to missing residents from the Surfside, Fla. building collapse.Credit: Giorgio Viera/AFP

Fled the Cuban Revolution

Like so many others in Miami, Nancy Kress Levin fled the Cuban Revolution in 1959. She settled with her husband in Puerto Rico, and then in the 1980s moved as a single mom with her two boys to Surfside. There, they lived in a then-new building popular with Hispanic Jews who had come mostly from Cuba. According to the Miami Herald, Frankie Kleiman had four children from a previous marriage, one of whom was pregnant with his first grandchild. 

The Kleimans are related to Deborah Berezdivin, 21, a university student who came to attend the same funeral as Jay Kleiman, the Herald reported. Her body and that of her boyfriend, Ilan Naibryf, 21, the president of the Chabad Student Board at the University of Chicago, have not yet been recovered from the wreckage.

Berezdivin’s family owned two units on the building’s 8th floor, according to the New York Times. Berezdivin was a marketing major at George Washington University who was raised in Puerto Rico. She dreamed of working in luxury fashion, according to a report in the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Dia. 

'Almost a sibling'

Baila Brackman, who runs the university’s Chabad center with her husband, Rabbi Yossi Brackman, said Naibryf became active in Chabad as a freshman and that she and her husband came to view him as a member of their family, “almost a sibling” to their kids. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she said, he came up with ideas for Zoom programs to keep students engaged.

Michael David Altman, 50, originally from San Jose, Costa Rica, is also among those confirmed dead. According to South Florida's WPLG television station, Altman’s family scoured area hospitals following the collapse in the hope that they would find him alive. A racquetball enthusiast, Altman worked as an accountant and was a “very loving guy,” his son Nicholas told the Miami Herald. He was “always smiling. He was very fun and loved to tell jokes.”

On Wednesday, Miami-Dade Police announced that the body of resident Simon Segal had been recovered the previous day. According to WPLG, Segal, 80, was a retired structural engineer originally from Cuba who owned his own construction company and was also an adjunct professor at Florida International University in Miami.

The bodies of at least 16 other members of the Jewish community believed to have been in the building when it collapsed have not yet been recovered. A likely dilemma will be how to comply with Jewish religious ritual when it comes to mourning Jewish victims whose bodies may never be recovered— a problem that also arose in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Reuters, The Associated Press and JTA contributed to this report.

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