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11 months after Surfside condo collapse, fight to pay and honor victims continues

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been almost a year since the deadly condominium building collapse in Surfside, Fla., that killed 98 people. And 11 months later, survivors are caught up in a bitter fight over money and how best to honor those who died. From member station WLRN in Miami, Veronica Zaragovia reports on efforts in court and in this Florida town to chart a path forward and bring back unity.

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: Surfside's elected officials themselves didn't get along much after the collapse. Two months ago, voters replaced almost all of them, including the mayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHLOMO DANZINGER: I will faithfully discharge...

SANDRA MCCREADY: ...The duties of mayor...

DANZINGER: ...The duties of mayor...

MCCREADY: ...In which I am about to enter.

DANZINGER: ...Of which I am about to enter.

MCCREADY: Congratulations.

DANZINGER: Oh, thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZARAGOVIA: New mayor Shlomo Danzinger asked people to stop the bickering.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANZINGER: We came together and inspired the nation and the entire world. I'm asking the residents of Surfside to remember the unity and the bond that we shared during that time.

ZARAGOVIA: A federal investigation is still underway to determine why the towering beachfront condominium collapsed. Deferred maintenance, flawed inspections and faulty construction in the 40-year-old building may have all played a role. Now, at public meetings, debate continues about how to memorialize those who died. Again, Mayor Danzinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANZINGER: Something tasteful, with the names, so people understand what this site represents.

ZARAGOVIA: The mockup of a proposed banner had a line - 98 people lost their lives on June 24, 2021 - but even that has led to anger from family members.

EILEEN ROSENBERG: I think it would be nicer to write 98 souls - precious souls, loved souls.

ZARAGOVIA: Eileen Rosenberg's daughter, Malky Weisz, died in the collapse. So did Pablo Langesfeld's daughter, Nicole.

PABLO LANGESFELD: Maybe to put our loved ones, human beings, maybe persons, but people - it's - I don't think it's the right word.

ZARAGOVIA: From public meetings to the courthouse, people are showing how the pain is still raw. At a recent court hearing, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman listened to their stories of the collapse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL HANZMAN: Everybody here welled up, including the court.

ZARAGOVIA: After months of mediation, the judge accepted a proposed settlement of $83 million. It would go to the people who lost their condos but survived the collapse. That money is bittersweet for people still struggling to cope. Raysa Rodriguez had a unit on the ninth floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAYSA RODRIGUEZ: I live with this every night when I go to sleep, where I wake up, a lady saying, please help me. Don't leave me like this.

ZARAGOVIA: Rodriguez lived in the building for 18 years. Some of her very best friends died in the collapse, and she still wrestles with all of it.

Despite the judge's approval of the $83 million settlement, it's not a done deal. The property still needs to be sold and has to fetch at least $120 million. That's what a developer in Dubai offered as an opening bid. It could sell for more at an auction soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANZMAN: Until and unless that happens, there will not be one penny distributed to the condominium owners.

ZARAGOVIA: The people whose family members died and filed wrongful death claims don't yet know how much they'll get from separate legal proceedings. Carlo Zeidenweber's family owned a unit on the first floor. He wanted to receive more in the settlement, but said everybody will gain if Florida tightens its building inspections.

CARLO ZEIDENWEBER: And hopefully the buildings will be safer.

ZARAGOVIA: The Florida Legislature adjourned this year without agreeing on how to improve condo safety. Lawmakers will return for a special session later this month, and this is among the topics they may consider.

For NPR News, I'm Veronica Zaragovia in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Veronica Zaragovia
Veronica Zaragovia reports on state government for KUT. She's reported as a legislative relief news person with the Associated Press in South Dakota and has contributed reporting to NPR, PRI's The World, Here & Now and Latino USA, the Agence France Presse, TIME in Hong Kong and PBS NewsHour, among others. She has two degrees from Columbia University, and has dedicated much of her adult life to traveling, learning languages and drinking iced coffee.