MIAMI (AP) – A Filipino-American who loved to play the piano and her Chilean husband lived on the 10th floor of the building. A flight down were Cuban immigrant grandparents who had dreamed of retiring to the beach. And just a week ago, a young Paraguayan arrived to work as a nanny.
The Champlain Towers South Condominium was a true reflection of Miami’s international mix – South American immigrants, Orthodox Jews, foreign retirees. The astonishing collapse of the 12-story building on Thursday quickly became a symbol of international tragedy, as families around the world hoped for news of their loved ones in a state of terrified limbo.
Among them, Richard Luna, who prays for a miracle but already speaks of his sister in the past tense. Lady Vanessa Luna Villalba, a newly arrived nanny from rural Paraguay, is among 159 people still missing as the condominium disintegrates into a smoking pile of twisted metal and concrete in Surfside, Fla. Just north of Miami.
“She had high hopes to progress and help our parents,” said Richard Luna, who anxiously watches the reports in Paraguay. “We are emotionally devastated.”
The child of farmers, Luna, 23, had studied nursing, but looked after the three children of a Paraguayan family who helped her obtain a passport. The children are also missing as well as their parents, Sophia López Moreira Bó and Luis Pettengil, the sister-in-law and the brother-in-law of the President of Paraguay. The first lady had planned to fly to Miami.
Authorities still did not know exactly how many residents or visitors were in the building at the time as of Friday. A clearer picture emerged from diplomatic dispatches and overseas reports: Israeli media said the country’s consul general in Miami, Maor Elbaz, believed that 20 citizens of that country were missing. 22 other people are missing in Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay.
As of Friday evening, authorities had helped family members from more than a dozen countries obtain visas to travel to Florida, Senator Marco Rubio said in a tweet.
The horror of seeing a hard-to-watch video of the tower collapse was compounded by the shock of its location: America.
“You don’t think that could happen here in the United States,” said Sergio Lozano Jr., whose grandparents Antonio and Gladys Lozano, both in their eighties, are among the missing.
The couple emigrated from Cuba years ago and the eldest Lozano, now retired, worked in the bank. Until a day ago, they were living their dream in Unit 903 of the Waterfront Tower.
“My grandfather always said when he retired that he wanted to retire on the beach,” said Lozano Jr. “He wanted to be able to go out on his balcony and look at the beach.”
Their son, Lozano Jr’s father, lived just two buildings away. Thursday evening the family had dinner together.
Lozano Jr. said his father woke up at 1:30 a.m. to a thunderous sound that sounded like a tornado and went to his balcony to bring the outdoor furniture. He looked at the apartment.
He was no longer there.
He called Lozano Jr. and woke him up with these words, “They’re gone.”
Juan Mora Sr. and his wife Ana were also immigrants from Cuba and part of a tight-knit Cuban-American community. Their son Juan Jr., was born in the United States and worked as an executive for Morton Salt in Chicago. Throughout the pandemic, he stayed away from his elderly parents, but was visiting when the building collapsed.
“He was doing his best to keep them safe,” said his longtime friend Danny Ugarte, who grew up with Juan Jr. He was the envy of his friends as a child, Ugarte said as his mother worked. for Delta Airlines and he was able to travel the world.
Ugarte’s mother, Jeanne, was close to Ana Mora, who did so much for her community, her children and her church, many times at a time. They took their sons to Santo Domingo on mission trips to help build churches and bridges.
“She was a very fervent Catholic, a truly caring and loving person,” Ugarte said in a touching telephone interview. “We slept on the floor on mats, and she was so devoted.”
The Ugartes try to stay positive, but Jeanne resigns herself.
“I know they’re not going to find them (alive),” she said. “It’s been too long.”
Among the six missing indigenous Colombians is a family of three who came to the United States a few weeks ago to get the COVID-19 vaccine and take a vacation.
Luis Fernando Barth, 51, director of a non-profit organization; his wife Catalina Gómez, a 45-year-old lawyer; and their 14-year-old daughter Valeria Barth are from Medellín in western Colombia. They were renting apartment 204 and weren’t supposed to be there. They had been to another beach and were planning to return to the rental on Thursday.
“Unfortunately, they decided to bring the trip forward and arrived at the apartment again on Wednesday,” said the woman’s brother-in-law José Luis Arango, who last spoke to them on Wednesday evening.
For the Velasquez family, it was to be a moment of conviviality after the coronavirus pandemic separated them.
Theresa Velasquez traveled from California to visit her parents, Julio and Angela. The three of them were in the building when it collapsed, said his uncle, Fernando Velasquez.
Julio, 66, born in Colombia, was a devout Catholic retired from the insurance industry. He loved soccer and traveling with his wife, Angela, who owned a clothing store. He was also writing a book on religion, said his brother, who spoke to him on the phone almost every day.
“He was a breath of fresh air. He was a peacemaker. It was a joy, ”said Fernando Velasquez, who lives in Elmhurst, NY He called his sister-in-law, Angela,“ a beautiful person,… always smiling, always ready to help in any way. ”
Fernando was returning from an evening mass when he heard about the collapse and picked up the phone.
“I called, and of course you don’t get any response,” he said. “This is how you know.”
Fernando said he and his wife visited in April and slept in the apartment, but didn’t notice anything wrong.
“It could have been us,” he said. “It could have been all of us.”
Among the missing South Americans were also a prominent Argentinian plastic surgeon, her husband and their young daughter.
Dr Andrés Galfrascoli, 45, has an office in Buenos Aires, but took his family to Miami as he could not work in the Argentine capital during the pandemic. Her husband, Fabián Núñez, 55, is a producer and director.
“Andrés is one of the best surgeons in the country, very discreet, very honest,” a friend, Flavia Martínez, told a local television station. “I spoke to him the day before yesterday, he told me he was fine, that he was resting.”
The family had been in Miami since April and had enrolled their 6-year-old daughter, Sofia, at a local school. They were one of the first Argentinian same-sex couples to have a surrogate baby and had said they were looking forward to having another child.
A Chilean, Claudio Bonnefoy, and his Filipino-American wife, Maria Obias Bonnefoy, lived on the 10th floor of the building. The husband, 85, a lawyer, is the first cousin of former Chilean president and high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet.
His wife Maria, 69, was an artist who loved to play the piano and was very close to her brother, Dulce Obias Manno. Manno said that throughout the pandemic, his sister was extremely cautious, going out just to buy food – only to suffer this unexpected tragedy.
“My sister is everything to me,” said Manno, 66, who traveled from Virginia in hopes of being reunited with his sister alive. “She is my brain, my conscience, my model.”
Surfside is also home to a large Orthodox Jewish community, and families crowd the sidewalks before sunset to attend Sabbath services. In the Orthodox community, thoughts have not only turned to the grim likelihood of multiple deaths, but also how to handle the inevitable burials.
According to Jewish custom, true virtue or “Chesed Shel Emes” means that the entire body and all of its parts, including limbs, blood, and tissues, are to be collected for burial. Bodies are also not allowed to be left overnight or exposed to the open air.
Zaka World, an organization of volunteers in Israel, specializes in the meticulous work of collecting the whole body. International director David Rose said that in massive disasters like the one in Miami, they use DNA samples for blood and tissue, carefully taking them from concrete and other surfaces. In some cases, however, some parts may not correspond to the deceased.
“Everything is collected and everything is buried,” Rose said. “It might not be who it belongs to, but it’s the most important thing – that he be buried.”
Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, founder of The Shul of Bal Harbor, the Orthodox Jewish synagogue near the building collapse, said his community still prays for miracles as rescue teams continue to search for survivors. He couldn’t say exactly how many members of the Surfside Jewish community were missing.
“It’s a very large group of people, unfortunately,” he said. “The circumstances are very, very dark. “
Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report. Cano reported from Mexico City, Hegemen from Belle Plaine, Kansas and Gecker from San Francisco. Adriana Gomez Licon and Gisela Salomon in Miami, Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale and Luis Andres Henao in New York also contributed reporting.