Last Victim in Surfside Condo Collapse Identified

(The Washington Post) -
Search-and-rescue personnel work on the debris of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, July 5, 2021. (Courtesy of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department / Handout via Reuters)

More than a month ago, the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla., collapsed suddenly, leaving a community in shock and in search of their loved ones. On Friday, firefighters ended the search and recovery operation at the site, but one missing person remained unaccounted for.

On Monday, authorities announced that they had identified that last remaining victim, marking the conclusion to a chapter of the recovery process that had left families grasping for answers.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that 98 victims have now been identified.

Linda Hedaya said she was notified Monday about her daughter Estelle, an effervescent 54-year-old described by her loved ones as a people magnet and an adventure-seeker.

After an agonizing month-long wait and the extended anxiety, the mother said the family is deeply relieved to have the chance to put Estelle’s body to rest according to sacred Jewish burial traditions.

“We have to go to the next stage, the next level of what happens now, and take care of her the way we should and lay her to rest with dignity,” Linda Hedaya said. “All the things she deserves should come to her now, as they did before.”

The family had endured Estelle Hedaya’s disappearance and the long wait for answers only through the support of relatives and friends in their close-knit Brooklyn Syrian-Jewish community. Linda Hedaya said she never had to make a phone call, was never left alone.

She said she found comfort in knowing her daughter was asleep when the condo collapsed and didn’t suffer.

“That’s what you have to hold onto in times like this,” Linda Hedaya said. “There’s no other choice. Because we can’t say, ‘Why did this happen?’ We’ll never know.”

The rescue-and-recovery effort at Surfside was the largest non-hurricane disaster response in Florida’s history. For almost two weeks, rescue efforts focused on the possibility of finding survivors amid the rubble, even as that hope dwindled with each passing day. On July 7, officials announced that “there are no live victims,” and shifted their focus to recovery. Firefighters had concluded their search for bodies last Friday, and the rubble was moved off-site, leaving Miami-Dade police officers to continue searching for additional remains and personal items.

“We’ve reached the 98 but that doesn’t mean we are done. We are still working the evidence piles. And we will continue until we deem that we have done everything we can,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez Monday afternoon.

Cava added that, “nothing we can say or do will bring back these 98 angels, who left behind grieving families, beloved friends, loved ones across this community and across the world. But we have done everything possible to bring closure to the families.”

On Monday, a rabbi was flying to Florida to collect Estelle Hedaya’s remains. Her family hopes a funeral can be held as soon as Tuesday. They will sit shiva for seven days and then, her mom said, “live, somehow, without her.”