A year after 98 people were killed in the Surfside condominium collapse, family members and the community honored those lost in the tragedy at a memorial service Friday.
First Lady Jill Biden, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other local and state leaders joined family members, survivors, rescue workers and others at the Surfside Remembrance Event at the site of the collapse.
"On behalf of my husband, President Biden, whose heart and prayers have never left this community, we stand with you today and always. And as we gather, we express gratitude for this community," Biden told the victims. "We are praying for you and we are grieving with you."
"It was not an easy job as a first responder, it was very emotional, I think it took a toll on a lot of people," DeSantis said. "You saw an entire community mobilize in support of obviously families who were wondering what happened with their loved ones, other families who were displaced and you had individuals step up."
Luis Bermudez, whose son, also named Luis, died in the collapse, gave an emotional tribute to him at the memorial. He said his son, who'd battled muscular dystrophy for most of his life and was in a wheelchair, lived life to the fullest.
"That spirit that you had is the one I need for the rest of my life," he said.
Additional private events for just family members of the victims will also be taking place during the day. Earlier Friday, family members gathered at the site at the time the building collapsed for a private memorial.
It was around 1:20 a.m. on June 24, 2021 when a large section of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building suddenly collapsed, leaving 98 people dead.
SURFSIDE 1 YEAR LATER
About three dozen people were able to escape with their lives from the portion of the building that remained standing. Only two teenagers and a woman survived the fall and were pulled from the rubble.
It was one of the deadliest collapses in U.S. history and turned into the largest emergency response that didn't involve a hurricane in Florida history.
Rescue workers spent weeks sifting through the massive pile of debris, removing millions of pounds of concrete from the site amid a desperate search for survivors.
Images of one survivor's rescue traveled widely, offering a glimmer of hope right after the collapse, but the long, grueling search produced mostly devastating results as families torturously waited only to learn about the remains of their loved ones.
Those missing in the collapse included the 7-year-old daughter of a firefighter who helped in the search, later found dead with her mother, aunt and grandparents; a woman whose cries for help were heard in the early hours but suddenly stopped; and two sisters, 4 and 11, pulled from the rubble, who were so tiny they were buried in the same casket. A 12-year-old girl sat down to pray across the rubble for her physician father, who was ultimately found dead.
The rescue effort eventually became a recovery effort to retrieve the bodies of all of the victims.
All 136 units of the building were demolished in a controlled explosion the night of July 4, 11 days after the collapse, after the remaining structure was deemed unsafe.
The remains of the final victim of the collapse were identified on July 26.
The victims included local residents as well as visitors who were Orthodox Jews, Latin Americans, Israelis, Europeans and snowbirds from the Northeast.
The cause of the collapse remains under investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in a process that could take years.
On Thursday, a judge gave final approval to a settlement topping $1 billion for victims of the collapse.
The bulk of the $1.02 billion total will go to people who lost family members in the collapse. About $100 million is earmarked for legal fees, and $96 million set aside for owners who lost one of the units in the building.
A billionaire developer from Dubai is set to purchase the 1.8-acre site for $120 million, which will contribute to the settlement.
At Friday's memorial, family members reflected on the impact of the tragedy.
“Exactly 365 days ago, my house imploded, my home collapsed with everything and everyone inside but ... I am alive, and I have the chance to rediscover something that motivates me to smile again, to fight, to be a whole person,” said Raquel Oliveira, whose husband and 5-year-old son died in the collapse.
“Let's not give up on justice, love, gratitude, forgiveness. Let’s not give up life. We have not come this far just to come this far,” she added.
In her speech Friday, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who spent weeks at the site giving updates and comforting victims' family members, called the site "sacred ground."
"Memories of June 24 and the weeks that followed will stay with me forever as I know they will with all of us today," she said.
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