Death toll from US Florida condo collapse at 98 after final victim identified

The disaster is now officially one of the deadliest structural building failures in American history.
The disaster is now officially one of the deadliest structural building failures in American history.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SURFSIDE, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) - More than a month after the terrifying collapse of a condominium tower in Surfside, the last victim's remains were identified, one of her relatives said on Monday (July 26), bringing the final death toll to 98 and capping a tedious, painstaking effort to account for every resident who had been killed.

The brother of Ms Estelle Hedaya, 54, who lived in a sixth-floor condo at the Champlain Towers South, said the police contacted the family on Monday, saying her remains had been found. The authorities scheduled a news conference for late Monday afternoon.

The disaster is now officially one of the deadliest structural building failures in American history.

Searchers spent several weeks relentlessly digging through the steel and concrete remains of the 13-story building in a hunt for survivors, long after it seemed that hope had been lost. After rescuing a 15-year-old boy, Jonah Handler, and finding his mother, Ms Stacie Fang, who died at a hospital, just hours after the collapse on June 24, searchers found no one else alive in the debris, uncovering only human remains.

The search-and-rescue effort officially ended on July 7, but officials vowed that the recovery operation would not cease until all the rubble had been searched and every victim's body had been found.

While the search for bodies at the collapse site concluded on Friday, teams of police officers continued to search off-site through millions of pounds of debris for evidence, victims' remains and personal items belonging to residents.

The discovery of Ms Hedaya's remains ends a long, painful period of waiting for her family and friends, who followed along as every other victim was identified within a month of the collapse. Ms Hedaya's younger brother, Ikey, travelled to Florida twice, offering a DNA sample and praying near the site.

"Your first reaction is shock and disbelief, and then just crying till you can't stop, and then accepting what you can't change," Ms Hedaya's mother, Ms Linda Hedaya, said on  Friday before her daughter's remains were found.

Ms Estelle Hedaya had relocated to Florida from New York to begin a new chapter and so much in her life was looking up, said her brother. She had lost weight, bought a new red car and was focused on her spirituality.

Her mother's wish was that her daughter would be found so she could receive a proper burial.

"We have no choice but to go on, but I want to give her the respect that she deserves," Ms Linda Hedaya said. "She was my firstborn. I called her my shining star." Search-and-rescue teams from Florida, several other states, Israel and Mexico battled dangerous terrain to comb through the remains of the collapsed condo, breathing through billows of thick smoke as they extinguished occasional fires.

For more than a week, the remaining part of the building towered over them, until it was demolished on July 4 amid the loud fireworks celebrations of nearby Miami Beach, opening new avenues for searchers and speeding the recovery of remains. Tropical Storm Elsa brought lightning and heavy rain, forcing teams to periodically pause their efforts.

As the days dragged on, family members who gathered at a reunification centre and nearby hotels for updates on the search were swabbed for DNA to help identify bodies, as a growing throng of people - including President Joe Biden - paid their respects at nearby memorials.

"We have all asked God for a miracle," Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County told reporters when the search for survivors was declared over. "So the decision to transition from rescue to recovery is an extremely difficult one."

As time passed, the authorities found it more and more difficult to identify the recovered victims because of the deteriorated state of the remains. The process required medical examiners to deploy extensive resources, including extracting DNA from bones and partnering with the FBI to lift delicate fingerprints.

Officials will now turn their entire focus on determining what could have caused the collapse. While search teams dug through the rubble, so did homicide detectives from the Miami-Dade Police Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, looking for any clues.

"There was something very, very wrong with this situation," Mayor Charles Burkett of Surfside said on June 26. "We're going to find out what happened - not tomorrow, not today, but not in the indefinite future."