Police believe 98 people died in the condo collapse. One hasn’t been found

Search and rescue personnel search rubble of the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. The search at the collapse site in Surfside, Fla., was declared over on Friday, July 23, but the authorities are continuing to look through the relocated rubble for the remains of Estelle Hedaya, 54. (Maria Alejandra Cardona/The New York Times)
The first victim was found in the heap of wreckage just hours after the sudden collapse of a 13-story oceanside condo building. The second body was pulled out a short while later. One after the next, 97 in all, they were located over the past month amid the millions of pounds of mangled steel and concrete.

But on Day 30, the authorities were still searching for one final victim.

For weeks, Linda Hedaya has anxiously awaited news of her firstborn daughter, Estelle Hedaya, 54, who had moved from New York to Florida to begin a new chapter and who is believed to be the 98th victim. She has waited as the list of those killed got longer and longer by the day. She has waited as her son traveled to Florida to give DNA that might help identify his older sister, and as funerals were held for the dozens of people who lived in the Champlain Towers South building.

And she has waited as the site was finally cleared, leaving just a bare concrete foundation.

“Torture is the only word I can think of to describe what our lives have been like since this happened,” Hedaya, 74, said Friday. “This has been heartbreaking and heart-wrenching.”

As the search for bodies at the collapse site was officially declared over Friday, Estelle Hedaya is the last believed — and still unaccounted for — casualty.

For nearly a month, workers scaled and chipped away at the mountain of debris created by the partial collapse of the building on June 24. Within two weeks, the frantic search for survivors shifted to the task of removing bodies or remains, a grim mission to give families some sense of closure.

Among the last of those missing was Linda March, a close friend of Estelle Hedaya’s who was found several weeks ago but not identified until Wednesday. A fellow New Yorker, March, 58, lived six floors above Estelle Hedaya in one of the penthouses.

Challenges complicated the search from the beginning. First, there was the sheer scale of the destruction, with the contents of condos and the collapsed floors amounting to millions of tons of debris. Already tedious and painstaking, the work was then threatened by fires, thigh-high groundwater, summer storms and Florida’s relentless heat, which deteriorated the remains and made identification particularly difficult.

Still, public officials promised to make every effort to find all of the victims.

“From the very beginning, my position was: We’re not leaving anyone behind,” Charles Burkett, the mayor of the small coastal town of Surfside, said after visiting the collapse site Friday.

Burkett said that “99.9 percent” of the debris had been relocated to secure areas and that it would be completely reprocessed. “They are going through everything with a fine-tooth comb,” he said.

The search for the final remains — believed to be Estelle Hedaya’s — would be done off-site, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County, which includes Surfside, said in a statement this week. The rubble was separated into two piles, with pieces deemed key evidence stored in a locked warehouse, and everything else at an outdoor site near Miami International Airport.

Police teams Friday were conducting another search for human remains in the relocated rubble, as well as other evidence and personal items belonging to residents, said Alvaro Zabaleta, a detective with the Miami-Dade Police Department. No timeline was given for when it might be completed.

It has been a very long month for the search teams, certainly, but the weeks have been agonising for Linda Hedaya.

On the morning of June 24, she had just finished making her bed when she saw a news clip of a condo building crumbling. She immediately recognized it as the home of her daughter, who had moved to Surfside about six years ago for a job in the jewelry business.

Life was going very well for Estelle Hedaya. In recent months, she had lost weight, bought a new red car to celebrate her successes and, her brother said, strengthened her spirituality. She was known as much for her vibrant personality as for her love of travel, adventures that took her to Las Vegas, Mexico and Israel.

What happened next on that terrible morning is now an achingly tragic and familiar sequence experienced by families from Texas to Paraguay: Panicked relatives alerted to the news frantically called their loved ones only to get no answer.

Linda Hedaya could not reach her daughter, and so she called a dear friend from high school who lived in South Florida and had become a “second mom” to her child.

“Is it true?” Linda Hedaya asked her friend, Leah Sutton.

“Yes,” Sutton replied.

It was the beginning of what Hedaya described as an ordeal only made bearable by her strong Jewish faith and a close circle of friends and relatives.

“How do you go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning and your daughter is gone like this?” asked Hedaya, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Abe Hedaya. “Our beliefs keep us grounded as much as we can be in a situation like this.”

Even as they watched the news footage of the collapsed building in horror, Hedaya and Sutton were certain that morning that Estelle Hedaya and her close friend, March, had made it out alive.

“We were so sure, they were such spectacular women — they weren’t going to be one of the victims,” Sutton said.

A few days after the collapse, Hedaya’s son, Ikey, went to Florida to give the authorities a DNA sample but also to better understand what had happened.

“I finally went to the site,” he said. “I took one look at the debris and I thought about that fact that my sister was in all that rubble. I turned around and left.”

Ikey Hedaya, one of three siblings, said he also had to consider that his sister might never be found. A member of the Syrian-Jewish community, Ikey Hedaya said the circumstances of the collapse have upended their funeral traditions.

Though he and his sister were seven years apart, they texted each other nearly every day. He taught her how to play backgammon and they often jostled for the affection of his dog, Sonny. Family members sometimes called her “cha-cha” because of her love of dancing.

He takes comfort in the idea that she was asleep when the collapse happened — and that she was in a good place in her life.

“My outlook is we have to mourn the person, show respect, deal with our feelings, but if you realize that God only does good, then you have better perspective and it strengthens you and you will be open to blessings,” he said. “Of course I want my sister back more than anything, but I believe that this was her time.”

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