Surfside condo collapse

Woman Lost Family in Surfside Condo Collapse, Gives Victims a Voice in Lawsuit Hearing

She lost her husband and son, her life spared only because she was out of town on the morning Champlain Towers South fell.

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A two-hour-long status hearing involving dozens of lawsuits stemming from the collapse of Champlain Towers South was proceeding along familiar, legalistic lines.

Then Raquel Oliveira took the floor.

"The day of the tragedy I traveled," she said, sobbing from the couch of a generous stranger who took her in after her rented condo -- and her life -- collapsed. "I traveled on Wednesday, but my husband and my son were there. They were going to meet me on the weekend. And I lost my husband and my five-year-old son."

Those in the Zoom status conference -- whether seeking justice for victims, or preparing to defend those whose negligence will be alleged -- watched in silence as Oliveira reminded everyone of the toll the condo collapse is taking on survivors of the 98 people who died nearly two months ago.

"I'm so sorry," interjected Judge Michael Hanzman, charged with overseeing all lawsuits involving the matter.

Oliveira, 41, said she did not know what she needed -- "patience," she suggested, was one thing -- but she knew what she wanted: anything tangible to remind her of her family, whatever the county has recovered from the ruins of their rented unit.

"Everything I had was there, so not only I lost my husband and my son, but I don’t even have memories," she said. "I don’t have the clothes to smell. I don’t have an object to look (at)."

But today, she learned may not even get that.

Lauren Morris, an assistant county attorney, said she and others may not get all they're hoping for.

"One of the issues that may occur," Morris said, "with the retrieval of personal property in this instance is that we, as a county do asbestos testing ... (and) there may be some items that may not be able to be returned because of environmental concerns and asbestos concerns."

The county said it would do all it could.

Earlier in the hearing, before Oliveira and a few other victims drove home the pain still being felt, legal questions over the value of the condo's oceanfront lot drew the most attention -- and a harsh tone from Judge Hanzman directed at the Town of Surfside.

"I need the town's complete cooperation and I expect it," he said forcefully at one point.

The problem: an unidentified entity is prepared to make an opening bid of $120 million for the land, but a town-wide zoning proposal in the works for 18 months would reduce the potential size of redevelopment there from 205 units to 139 units. There were 136 units in Champlain Towers South, which was built in 1981.

Hanzman was clearly miffed.

"I would be beyond shocked to hear the Town of Surfside, in the wake of this catastrophe, would still be considering taking any action whatsoever that could have the effect of decreasing the value of this property and decreasing the likelihood of the victims of this tragedy being fully compensated," he said. "Is that really something the Town of Surfside at this point in time is seriously contemplating?"

The short answer is yes.

"I need to know what we have to work with here," the judge said, noting bidders can't assess the value of the land without knowing how many units could be built upon it.

The town's attorneys said they would relay the judge's concerns and hope to get something back to the judge soon.

With $53 million in insurance proceeds, the condo association's land is the largest asset that could be tapped into for the benefit of victims.

But lawsuits could produce damages from those ultimately found liable for their role in the disaster, including -- the judge did not have to remind Surfside today -- potentially the Town of Surfside itself.

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