‘Message in the mess’: Family finds hope as search continues

Jun 26, 2021, 9:45 PM | Updated: 9:56 pm
People pray, late Saturday, June 26, 2021, during a prayer vigil for the victims and families of th...

People pray, late Saturday, June 26, 2021, during a prayer vigil for the victims and families of the Champlain Towers collapsed building in Surfside, Fla., at the nearby St. Joseph Catholic Church in Miami Beach, Fla. Many people were still unaccounted for two days after Thursday's fatal collapse. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — When Mike Noriega heard that part of the condominium tower where his grandmother lived had collapsed, he rushed with his father to the scene. They arrived at a nightmarish 30-foot pile of pancaked concrete and mangled metal, the remains of her 12-story building — and no sign of 92-year-old Hilda Noriega.

But among the flying debris, they stumbled across mementos that bore witness to Hilda’s life on the sixth floor in Champlain Towers South: an old picture of her with her late husband and their infant son, and a birthday card that friends from her prayer group sent two weeks earlier with the acronym “ESM,” Spanish for “hand-delivered,” scrawled across the yellow envelope with a butterfly etching.

“There was a message in the mess of all this,” Noriega said. “It means not to give up hope. To have faith.”

Days after Thursday’s collapse, Hilda remains among more than 150 people unaccounted for in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, with five confirmed dead and authorities and loved ones fearing the toll will go much higher.

As scores of rescuers continue to use heavy machinery and power tools to clear the rubble from the top and tunnel in from below, the Noriega family still have hope she will be found alive.

“Some miracles are very big, others are small,” said Mike, 36, who last spoke to Hilda the day before the disaster.

They described Hilda as a fiercely independent and vivacious retiree — in Mike’s words, “the youngest 92-year-old I know … 92 going on 62.”

Hilda Noriega had called Champlain Towers South home for more than 20 years. But six years removed from her husband’s death, she was ready to leave. The condo was up for sale, and her plan was to move in with family.

She had loved living near the ocean and friends, but “when you lose a spouse, you want to be surrounded by family … and she wanted to spend more time with her family and grandchildren,” said Sally Noriega, Hilda’s daughter-in-law.

Sally called Hilda a sweet, loving person who built a life with her husband and raised a family after coming to the U.S. from Cuba in 1960.

“She was just one of those people who from the first time she met a person she instantly loved that person, and that person instantly loved her,” Sally said.

Carlos Noriega, Hilda’s son and police chief of nearby North Bay Village, was one of the emergency responders clambering atop the pile.

The Noriegas don’t entirely know what to make of the treasured mementos found amid the chaos, but Sally said: “We are a family of faith. We’ll just leave it at that.”

They are among dozens of anguished families awaiting word on the fate of loved ones. The wait has been agonizing.

The atmosphere inside a hotel ballroom where around 200 family members were being briefed by authorities Saturday was tense, two people present told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

The two said families frustrated with the slow pace of recovery efforts had demanded they be allowed to go to the scene and attempt a collective shout — an attempt as much to find survivors as a cathartic farewell to those who had died.

The confirmed death toll rose to five Saturday as rescuers battled fire and smoke deep inside the heap in a race against time. With a sulfur-like stench hanging in the air, they used everything from trained dogs and sonar equipment to buckets and drones.

“Our top priority continues to be search-and-rescue and saving any lives that we can,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.

The mayor said the identification of three bodies had dropped the number of people unaccounted for down to 156, and crews also discovered other unspecified human remains. The remains are being sent to the medical examiner, and authorities are gathering DNA samples from family members to aid in identification.

A video posted online showed an official briefing families. When he said they had found remains among the rubble, people began sobbing.

Late Saturday, four of the victims were identified, as Stacie Dawn Fang, 54; Antonio Lozano, 83, and Gladys Lozano, 79; and Manuel LaFont, 54.

The Paramount Miami Worldcenter tower in downtown Miami was also lit with the words “One World, One Prayer.” Organizers plan to light up the condo building with the message every night for two minutes on the hour until all victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse are accounted for.

Also late Saturday, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said a city official had led a cursory review of the nearby Champlain Towers North and Champlain Towers East buildings but “didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.”

The news came after word of a 2018 engineering report that showed the building, which was built in 1981, had “major structural damage” to a concrete slab below its pool deck that needed extensive repairs, part of a series of documents released by the city of Surfside.

While officials said no cause for the collapse early Thursday has been determined, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said a “definitive answer” was needed in a timely manner.

___

Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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‘Message in the mess’: Family finds hope as search continues