SURFSIDE, Fla – Six-year-old John Paul Rodriguez keeps telling his father to call his missing grandmother’s cell phone.
“Her cell phone may be crashed,” he told her, “but try again.”
Elena Blasser, 64, is among 159 people still missing after a 12-story oceanfront condominium in Miami-Dade County, Fla., Collapsed Thursday morning, leaving behind dozens of residents trapped. Rescue efforts were underway, with crews tunneling through the rubble, but officials said it was unlikely there would be any survivors. At least four people have been confirmed dead.
As the days go by without news, a sense of dread has pervaded Blasser’s son, Pablo Rodriguez. Elena Chavez, 88, Blasser’s mother and Rodriguez’s grandmother, is also missing. She had decided to sleep above the apartment the night before the building collapsed.
Jean-Paul knows his grandmother and great-grandmother were in the building when he collapsed,and he seems to think they will be OK. But the probable loss eats away at Rodriguez. He had recently finished resurfacing the pool in his backyard and his little boy was patiently waiting for Saturday to throw himself in with the two of them.
“What am I going to say to my son? Rodriguez, 40, said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Saturdays are the days of Abuela.
United family braces for bad news
After the building partially collapsed, a huge cloud of dust engulfed the Surfside neighborhood which has long been a quiet enclave for many South Florida Jewish and Argentinian families, as well as other Latinos, Americans and residents. international.
For Rodriguez, part of his life fell apart as well.
Every Saturday morning the doorbell rang at his house.
Rodriguez’s son John Paul would enthusiastically open the door to kiss Chavez, whom he calls “Yeyi”, and Blesser, whom he calls “Ama”. The two would pick up the wide-eyed boy and drive him to a local Cuban bakery for fresh guava pastelitos.
They spent the day at the pool or playing on the beach along the Champlain Towers, now half collapsed.
They never missed a Saturday.
The women were born in Cuba. Chavez gave birth to Blesser in 1956, two years before Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. The family first fled the Communist regime in New York City before settling in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s.
Chavez, once a dedicated schoolteacher, impressed her daughter, who also became a teacher.
The family moved to Miami in 1978, setting up duplex houses so mother and daughter could live next to each other.
Although his parents divorced as a child, Rodriguez described being lucky enough to have an idyllic Cuban-American childhood in Miami: his Abuelo teaching him to play baseball in Tamiami Park, running behind the ice cream truck with his mother, the smell of his grandmother’s black beans.
“Nobody does black frijoles like it does, ”Rodriguez said. “She tried to teach everyone and my wife too, but for some reason they don’t taste the same.”
There’s still a plastic jar of margarine in Rodriguez’s fridge filled with a batch of black beans cooked by Chavez.
After the divorce, Blasser raised two children as a single mother with the salary of a public school teacher while also supporting two aging parents.
“Now I know why some weekends we would take the stale bread and go to the canal to feed the ducks,” Rodriguez said. “It didn’t cost any money.”
The sacrifices forced the family to lean on each other, Rodriguez said.
“If my mother was sitting here right now, that’s what she would tell you,” he said, “her only mission was for us to be united.”
“Buildings don’t just collapse”
When Rodriguez was in high school, his mother married Joseph Blasser, a Panamanian Jewish businessman she met in Miami.
Years later, after retiring from teaching, Elena Blasser sold her house and used her savings to fulfill her lifelong dream of living near water. In 2009, she and her husband purchased unit number 1211 from Tours Champlain Sud.
“My mom loved the beach. She loved to sit in the water like a buoy, ”Rodriguez said.
There were a lot of days at the beach. Weekends at the beach. Walks on the sands. Each July, Rodriguez traveled with his family, including Blasser and Chavez, to different tropical locations. They visited the Cayman Islands, Mexico, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
These were other places they had hoped to visit.
Rodriguez last spoke to his mother and grandmother on Wednesday around 7 p.m. He said his mother complained of hearing rumbling in the building but didn’t think about it.
“They were perfectly healthy and then it happens, the soil is taken away from you, literally,” Rodriguez says. “Every time I close my eyes, I see the pictures on the tower news drop. Every time.”
Rodriguez’s stepfather was not injured. Joseph Blasser was on a business trip when his house collapsed. He returned Thursday to find his missing wife.
A lawsuit against Champlain Towers South was filed late Thursday evening. The court record alleged that the condominium failed to repair the structural issues and prevent the building from collapsing. Although the cause of the collapse has not yet been determined, USA TODAY has found that the building constructed in 1981 has been sinking since the 1990s, according to a study by experts.
Rodriguez said his mother did not approve of the management of the condominium association. But regardless of the outcome of the investigation or the expected tsunami of lawsuits, Rodriguez said he felt cheated. Her mother and grandmother were in excellent health.
“Buildings aren’t just collapsing in Miami,” he said as tears rolled down his face.
Family members submit DNA samples pending responses
On Friday afternoon, Rodriguez visited the Surfiside community center which housed evacuees and families of people missing since the building’s tragic disappearance.
Some people were seated on folded chairs covered with blankets bearing the crest of the American Red Cross. The sound of people’s voices bounced off the walls. Volunteers, many from the local Orthodox Jewish community, came and went to distribute food. Grilled fish, kosher burgers, potato salad. Others have set up tents to protect families from the rain and to collect aid.
Rodriguez and his wife lined up outside the double doors. He was there to donate a DNA sample in hopes that the remains of his loved ones could be identified.
As he stood in line, a Hasidic Jew wearing a traditional black hat approached him.
“Do you have a place to go on Shabbat? The man asked.
Rodriguez and his wife informed the man that the family was not Jewish.
” It does not matter. We are here for you. If you need a place to go this weekend, clothes, food… we have food for five months, you come here, ”said the man with a heavy Hebrew accent in English.
Rodriguez’s eyes swelled and the man grabbed his shoulder to comfort him.
Later, after his sample was taken, Rodriguez and his wife returned to their car and picked up their son, who had spent the day playing at a friend’s house.
There were a lot of unanswered questions, Rodriguez thought. Were his mother and grandmother alive? What happened? Who was responsible?
And then there was the most painful question, the one he still didn’t know how to answer for his son: “Ama and Yeyi are coming tomorrow?”
Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi