An aerial view shows a partially collapsed building in Surfside, Fla., just north of Miami Beach. CNS photo/Marco Bello, Reuters

Catholic agency responds to tragedy at Florida condo towers

By  Tom Tracy, Catholic News Service
  • June 30, 2021

MIAMI BEACH -- Staff members with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami were on location and developing a response strategy June 24 near the stunning wreckage of a partially collapsed beachfront high-rise apartment building.

As of June 29, 11 deaths were confirmed and 150 people who lived in the 12-storey building remained unaccounted for, including four Canadians, according to local law enforcement officials.

Speaking by phone from the temporary reunification centre for family, friends and displaced residents desperate for information about the collapsed Champlain Towers Condo in the beach town of Surfside, a senior director of community based services for Miami Catholic Charities said she arrived at the “ground zero” site the afternoon of the collapse.

“I have worked hurricanes, but nothing like this: It is just a look of sadness you see on everyone’s face. It is heartbreaking,” said Jackie Carrion, who said her agency is making temporary Catholic Charities housing and material assistance available following the catastrophe.

She told The Florida Catholic, Miami’s archdiocesan newspaper, the reunification centre was buzzing with law enforcement, other charities and emergency response agencies, local religious chaplains and distressed relatives.

The Surfside township north of Miami Beach is popular with a vibrant mix of South Americans, tourists, Orthodox Jews, Russians and others. The four missing Canadians are from three different families, according to Global Affairs Canada.

Miami Catholic Charities expected to add local counselling services for anyone in need.

Video showing the building’s collapse in the early morning hours of June 24 and the subsequent news footage of the rubble brought to mind scenes of 9/11.

There were about 55 units in the tower that collapsed, news reports said. An attached tower housing the remainder of the 136-unit complex remained standing but its residents were evacuated.

The collapse occurred at 1:30 a.m. (local time) and left what has been described as a horrific pile of “pancaked” wreckage.

“I saw a lot of families supporting each other,” Carrion said. “There was a moment when the police called for a member of each family to go into the building (for private consultation). People want to know what is happening to their relatives, friends and loved ones.”

Carrion was joined at the ground zero site by Fr. Juan Sosa, pastor of nearby St. Joseph Parish, who has reported that 10 of its registered families remain missing following the collapse.

It is possible, Sosa said, that other families who lived in Champlain Towers South and who worshipped at St. Joseph informally may be among the missing, since the area is known as a vacation spot full of short-term rentals.

“Plus there are the many who used to come on weekends from other parts of Miami who have worshipped with us, and so we are very touched by the idea of the whole community being bound together and praying together,” Sosa told the media June 25, just before celebrating a Mass for the missing, their family and friends.

“For us it is very important to have something to do at this time to bring hope to those people,” said the priest, who has been pastor of St. Joseph for 11 years

On behalf of Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of state, sent a message of solidarity to Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, expressing “deep sadness at the grievous loss of life.”

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