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Chaplains, clergy remember Surfside tragedy a year later

Condo collapse became a focal point for fielding a pastoral presence during a crisis

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A couple walk by the new, temporary memorial to the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South, which encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

A couple walk by the new, temporary memorial to the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South, which encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

SURFSIDE | A few, very vivid memories of the 2021 Surfside building collapse remain etched in the memory of a priest chaplain to the Miami-Dade Police Department. 

They include standing and watching as rescue workers dug through the pile of rubble following that June 24 event near Miami Beach and retrieved the remains of the deceased, often concealed under crushed mattresses. 

Names of the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South are inscribed on the new temporary memorial that encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Names of the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South are inscribed on the new temporary memorial that encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

Champlain Towers South was a 12-story beachfront apartment building completed in 1981 whose 12-second collapse is still a subject of inquiry, although water erosion, poor maintenance and original design defects all seem to have played a role. 

But for one priest chaplain, it was the unforgettable day that city officials bused in anxious family members and survivors to see firsthand “the pile” and to spend a few moments in silence just days after the collapse that would claim 98 souls. Their names are now inscribed temporarily on a memorial banner on a perimeter fence enshrouding the still-empty demolition site. 

“One of the most impactful moments of the whole tragedy and key for the chaplains was when they allowed the family members to visit the site. I was standing there, wearing clerics as a priest, watching the people coming from the buses,” said Father Elvis Gonzalez, a chaplain to the City of Miami Police Department and pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Miami.

“People, even non-Catholics, stopped and asked me to pray for their family members, saying their loved ones were buried under there,” said Father Gonzalez, who was called to the scene by the police department within 24 hours of the collapse. 

Over the course of the following days and weeks, Father Gonzalez and other Catholic chaplains, clergy, volunteers and Miami Catholic Charities staff would provide a regular presence to the rescue workers, surviving family members and even the considerable media personnel on hand to cover the tragedy. 

The archdiocesan Communications Office also helped orchestrate additional clergy and volunteer teams to play other roles in Surfside, including offering support to the pastoral staff at St. Joseph Parish, which is only one block away from Champlain Towers South. 

“I got involved from the first day. I got called to the City of Miami Police Department looking for chaplains who were bilingual,” Father Gonzalez said, adding that he would later make at-home pastoral visits to one of the Catholic grieving families who lost multiple members. He also took part in those funeral Masses. 

Many of the deceased Catholics at Surfside were members not only of nearby St. Joseph Parish but other parishes throughout the region. 

 

CONSOLATION

“I remembered it like it was yesterday,” Father Gonzalez said, noting that although he met with various families at the Surfside family reunification center, the real counseling and grieving took place in hotel rooms nearby where the city offered grieving families a local place to sleep. 

A new, temporary memorial to the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

A new, temporary memorial to the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

“They were really in need of consolation and prayers,” the priest said, adding that he still keeps in touch with some of the family members. 

There were other important tasks during those days, including offering a friendly presence to the various teams of rescue workers — many of whom had traveled in from out of state and out of country — and being a calming presence when tensions and emotions ran high among the civic authorities, rescue crews and law enforcement, all eager to recover survivors or the deceased. 

“Another moment that was very impactful: I was there at night when they discovered the body of the little girl who was the daughter of one firefighter who also lost his wife in the tragedy,” Father Gonzalez said. 

The discovery of those bodies gave momentary pause to the rescue effort. 

“It was very breathtaking to see all of these men and women come together in unity for the firefighter who lost his daughter and wife. Every time they found a body, the workers stopped. These people really had a sense of dignity,” he said. 

 

FIREFIGHTERS

Another Miami priest called to duty had been a 21-year Miami-Dade County fireman before entering the seminary and becoming a priest: Father Elkin Sierra, now parochial vicar at St. Louis Parish in Pinecrest. He still knows many of the area firefighters who were working 12-hour shifts and sleeping in a makeshift base camp near the pile. 

Father Sierra had experience with Florida Task Force One of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue following a building collapse in Puerto Rico some years ago. “As a priest I thought of those who would need support including the family and friends of the missing. I contacted the chaplaincy for the county fire department and they invited me to come and meet with the (crews). I also went to where the families were gathering,” he said.

“Most of the fireman guys know me and they were glad to see me. I didn’t go more often because of our busy duties at my parish, but I went every day or two or three times a week for a few hours at a time,” Father Sierra said.

He joined Father Christopher Marino, official priest chaplain to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, in focusing on the spiritual needs of firefighters. 

A new, temporary memorial to the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

A new, temporary memorial to the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

“As a new priest responding to something of such magnitude, I was very happy with the reception of a Catholic priest, among the families and the first responders, to a ministry of faith in their midst,” Father Sierra added.

He also was on hand during the search for the body of that Miami firefighter’s daughter.

“He wasn’t a bitter, angry person. He was open to prayer, not resentful,” Father Sierra said. And then after the prayers, he told his crew, “Remember, my daughter is buried somewhere in that pile, but she is not the only one. We continue the search for everyone, not only my daughter.”

 

MEDIA

Father Ryan Saunders, newly appointed priest secretary to Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Father Andrew Tomonto, parochial vicar at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, and Father Matthew Gomez, archdiocesan vocations director, were all on hand to pray with rescue workers but also to offer a supportive presence at the international media camp that grew almost overnight. 

“We realized how truly affected the media are when reporting on these incidents day after day, and over the years I have media friends who have reached out to talk from time to time to release those emotions that deal with those stories day after day,” Father Saunders said.

There were also occasions to engage with survivors at the family reunification center. 

“When you are standing in a room with a (Roman) collar people find their way to you,” Father Saunders said. “There was a gentleman sitting off by himself and I asked how he was doing and he just burst into tears. He composed himself and told me that he had gotten out (of Champlain Towers) just in time but he lost everything: his apartment, his belongings and he didn’t even have an identification.”

At that family reunification center, state and local emergency response agencies had come up various services, including replacing identification and driver’s licenses. “He was holding on to his ID and said this was the beginning of starting over again,” Father Saunders said.

 

FUNERALS

Then there were the funerals. Epiphany Parish in South Miami hosted a total of five funerals related to the tragedy, including one double funeral for two family members, according to Father Saunders. He remembered being struck by “how this event in this small town had ripple effects throughout the county.”

Some of the members of Epiphany were also dealing with survivor’s guilt at having almost attended a social event that night at Champlain Towers. 

Names of the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South are inscribed on the new temporary memorial that encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Names of the 98 souls lost a year ago during the June 24 collapse of Miami's Champlain Towers South are inscribed on the new temporary memorial that encircles the now empty site of the 12-story beachfront apartment building on Miami Beach. Its collapse impacted dozens of local Catholic and other families and nearby St. Joseph Parish in particular. Officials have yet to make a final determination as to a specific cause for the collapse.

As more and more of these crises continue to take place in our community, he added, “it brings to the forefront for all of us that we need to be able to step in at a moment's notice to ... care for the people we serve,” Father Saunders added. 

Father Tomonto arrived at the Surfside ground zero a week into the event and found the media personnel tired and morose, exhausted from the round-the-clock reportage that captivated the world last summer. 

“We could see some of these media people were ready to break down and we spoke to a good number of them in the middle of that incredible stress,” he said. “One of my parishioners is with CBS News in Miami, and of course we were around as first responders were coming off the pile, and so we spoke to a good number of firefighters and rescue workers coming off their shifts all dusty.”

 

CLOSEST CHURCH

The community of nearby St. Joseph Parish, led by Father Juan Sosa, was among the hardest hit and responsible for hosting the largest number of funerals following the tragedy. Two days after the collapse, the parish also hosted an evening prayer vigil and eucharistic adoration, including a rosary walk to the temporary “wall of remembrance.”  

A newer wall of remembrance has been erected since. But area civic leaders and survivor families are working on plans for a permanent memorial.

The Champlain Towers disaster marked a somber beginning to last year’s summer season in Miami Beach. 

“On the other hand, there is kind of a rally when something like that happens. People reach out to God, and they are willing to talk even if they don’t make church a regular thing,” Father Tomonto said. 

This May, a tentative legal settlement resulted in a nearly $1 billion fund to be distributed among families who lost loved ones in the collapse. Property owners also would split $96 million to compensate them for their loss. 

MASS OF REMEMBRANCE

  • The parish community of St. Joseph Church will celebrate a Memorial Mass at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 24, at 8670 Byron Avenue, Miami Beach, to pray for the victims of the collapsed Champlain Towers one year ago. See more info here.
  • Listen to the recollections of the archdiocesan communications staff who spent over a week at the site on the podcasts, What the Faith, Miami? and Cuéntame Católico.

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Comments from readers

Deacon Tom Hanlon - 06/23/2022 04:52 PM
Very good article. Some folks may not know that there were 3 Deacons from the Archdiocese working at the site from early on the first day until the work was concluded. We are part of the MDPD Chaplain Corp and work with Chaplains from other faiths. We spent time talking with family who had loved ones in the building as well as survivors who were in shock. We were not identified as Catholics as we were identified by our shirts which just said "Chaplain". The Deacons were Ralph Gazitua and Louis Phang Sang from St John Neumann and myself. Deacon Thomas Hanlon St Louis Parish.
Hope Sadowski - 06/23/2022 09:47 AM
St. Joseph is my parish. Although a year has passed that empty space is a constant reminder of that dreadful time. I lost several friends that I knew from the parish and didn't know where they lived. Finding out by the pictures shown on the news, it was totally devastating. May they all rest in peace. If there is something to be taken from this time it was the fact that we all came together regardless of faith, ethnicity or race. We were all SurfsideStrong.