Shattered at Surfside: A brother's journey
June 9, 2023
For three weeks my family experienced an unimaginable nightmare from which we could not wake.
On June 24, 2021, my world ended as I knew it.
At 3 a.m., my mother received a news notification that a building had collapsed by Miami Beach. She had a mother’s instinct that this was the building Nicky and Luis lived in — my beautiful 26-year-old sister and her 28-year-old husband. We immediately drove to Surfside where my sister’s building once stood and saw an image that never stops invading my mind: half a building.
I remember counting the floors up, trying to figure out if apartment 804 was still standing. It seemed that half of their condo was still standing, the other half in the enormous rubble — an agonizing sight that tore my heart. I was overwhelmed with pain as I desperately tried to recall the layout of the apartment, straining to remember if it was the bedrooms or the kitchen that remained intact.
In seconds, our lives were shattered.
For weeks we felt like we were living in a gut-wrenching horror movie, filled with sorrow and a profound sense of loss. For three entire weeks we had no idea what was happening. With thousands of people around us, cameras being shoved in our face, and the burning question if my sister and brother-in-law would be rescued or “recovered,” it was an unimaginable nightmare from which I could not wake.
The day we were dreading finally arrived when the rescue workers said, “Today it is with great sadness that we announce our switch in missions from search and rescue to search and recovery.” The families didn’t scream or fight; they accepted the news with utter silence. It was the only silence we heard in three weeks. You could hear the pain across the room of 98 beloved families trying to remember the last conversation they had with their loved ones.
Grieving and the Jewish community
Through those endless days and nights, we were never alone. We felt the constant support from the Jewish community that never wavered. Through those weeks of limbo, we vacillated between hope and grief, faith and lost hope. Growing up in a secular household, the sight of unfamiliar religious rituals and traditions left me in awe. Witnessing people wrapping tefillin, organizing Shabbats for hundreds, and offering prayers for Nicky and Luis, whom many had never met, was truly remarkable. What struck me the most, however, was the way this Jewish community provided not just a roof over our heads, but also a comforting shoulder to lean on. Despite my initial confusion, I found solace in the warmth of their embrace, as they sheltered us, uplifted our spirits, and treated us like family during our darkest hours. Their unwavering support became a beacon of light, offering comfort amidst the depths of our grief.
People from across the world flew down to help and expected nothing in return. Jews who were strangers to me just a few weeks before the tragedy actively joined me in burying my sister, Nicky. As an expanded family, they shared my sorrow, my pain and transformed it into a collective mourning.
Political involvement and push for reform
In the aftermath of the Surfside collapse and losing Nicky and Luis, I was filled with an intense resolve to somehow make a difference. I paused my profession as commercial real estate broker in Miami and stepped into an unfamiliar, daunting world of activism and political reform. The raw pain of loss fueled my determination to honor my loved ones and ensure no family would face our horror.
Every interview, press conference, court hearing, and gathering became more intense with emotions running high across the room and many political players against me, but I did not stop pleading for change. Advocating for condo reform became my mission, a grueling uphill battle that demanded countless meetings and confrontations with those who seemed to value profit over human lives.
Finally, when one of the laws we were pushing for was signed by the governor and other damaging bills I testified against got dropped, we felt a small sigh of relief. It was a step, a vital one, towards preventing another tragedy. But the fight isn’t over. I’m now focusing on Miami-Dade County, a community with many buildings dangerously close to disaster. I’m pushing officials to tighten safety standards and overhaul building inspections.
My goal is to have a legislative impact throughout Florida and the entire country to ensure everyone’s safety in their own homes. In addition, I am dedicated to ensuring that a memorial is incorporated at the site of the collapse instead of another new development, and I will continue my efforts towards this goal.
I am not a politician. I’m just a brother who lost his family too soon. Each day, I’m driven by grief, memory, and an unwavering commitment to ensure no one else experiences our pain. This fight isn’t about politics or money; it’s about making sure that safety and lives are always put before profits.
My time in Jerusalem
Amidst the storm of grief and loss, the Jewish community provided crucial support I hadn’t realized I needed. Their genuine kindness and care deeply moved me.
I was intrigued and yearned to comprehend where this incredible generosity came from and why their hearts were so open to those they didn’t know. One year after the collapse, I left everything familiar behind and spent a few months at Aish in Jerusalem to embark on a journey of understanding.
I discovered another welcoming community and gained invaluable insights. I immersed myself in learning and seeking the roots of our compassionate spirit. I deepened my understanding of what it means to be a Jew and how all Jews are essentially part of one family.
I learned about the beauty of Jewish traditions, the depth of our shared heritage, and the significance of personal growth and self-reflection, regardless of one’s level of religious observance. Aish helped me cultivate a profound sense of identity, purpose, and connection to my Jewish roots. It was an enlightening journey that impacted my perspective on life and the power of community.
As time moves on, my perspective shifts. I’m no longer caught in the question, “Why did this happen to me?” Instead, I find myself wondering, “Why did this happen for me?” It’s a hard shift to make, especially when the grief still feels so raw. But in my darkest hours, as I work to make a difference in our community, I remember those who stood by me during the toughest time of my life. I’m not alone in this journey. And for that, I’m endlessly grateful. #4Nicky.