Miami chaplains, clergy remember Surfside building collapse a year later

A makeshift memorial for victims of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South apartment building in Surfside, Fla., is seen June 17, 2022. The collapse of the 12-story beachfront building on Miami Beach resulted in 98 deaths June 24, 2021. It also left many survivors displaced in the subsequent months. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy, Florida Catholic)

by Tom Tracy

SURFSIDE, Fla. (CNS) — A few vivid memories of the 2021 Surfside building collapse remain etched in the memory of a priest who is 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 last year and retrieved the remains of the deceased, often concealed under crushed mattresses.

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.

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.

“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 Miami-Dade 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 area 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.

“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.

“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.

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

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 told the Florida Catholic, Miami’s archdiocese newspaper.

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,” Father Sierra said.

“Most of the fireman 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.

“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.

Father Ryan Saunders, newly appointed priest secretary to Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, went to the site to offer a supportive presence at the 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 also were 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.”

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

As more and more of these crises continue to take place in communities, 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.

The community of nearby St. Joseph Parish was 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.

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.

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