Coins, photos, kitchen tools: Pieces of lives buried in Miami building collapse

Workers searching the rubble of a Florida residential tower are cataloguing the personal belongings they find. But getting them to their rightful owners could be complicated.

Moshe Candiotti felt Champlain Towers South tremble in the middle of the night and ran out the door, taking next to nothing with him as he fled for his life.

Candiotti, 67, knows he was lucky to have survived the collapse last month of the condo building in Surfside, Florida. At least 95 of his neighbours did not.

He cannot help but wish, though, that a few of his personal possessions would emerge at some point from the rubble. Perhaps the framed portrait of his mother. Or the gold and silver coins from all over the world that he had collected since childhood.

“They are recovering the bodies, which is more important than anything else,” he said.

But as the effort to find those killed in the collapse nears its end, survivors of the disaster and the families of the dead have also started to wonder whether keepsakes, heirlooms or other mementos — tokens of the lives and homes lost in an instant — might also be salvaged.

Some, in fact, have.

As search crews dig through the pile of concrete and metal following the building collapse on June 24, they are collecting and cataloguing the many personal items they find along the way, a massive undertaking with little local precedent that has required creativity, logistics and extensive work.

Sifting through more than 18 million pounds of concrete and debris, searchers have come across everything from the mundane, such as kitchen utensils, to the valuable, including jewellery, said Sgt. Danny Murillo, who is leading the effort with 20 or so officers from the Miami-Dade Police Department. They have been working 12-hour shifts around the clock to log the finds.

“You have things that are unscratched and other things that are totally destroyed,” Murillo said in an interview this week, clad in a hazmat suit not far from the air-conditioned tent where the officers spend their days sifting through the items. (The officers wear hazmat suits and masks to limit their exposure to any contaminants present in the debris.) “It’s a never-ending flow of property.”

Items are tracked based on where they were found in the pile, which has been divided into search grids. Officers receive bins of items from the search teams and then spread them out on tables, trying to figure out whether any items go together — a toy that has been broken into several pieces, for example. The items are then sealed in plastic evidence bags, placed in boxes and locked in a shipping container.

As of earlier this week, officers had filled perhaps a hundred big boxes in four shipping containers, Murillo estimated.

Among the personal treasures has been actual treasure — thousands of dollars in cash, which officers count and log as they would evidence.

But the more sentimental discoveries are the ones that tug at officers’ heartstrings, such as family photos and children’s artwork.

“It can be tough,” Murillo said. “We all are human.”

Developing a system to collect everything took some trial and error, because the Police Department had never had to handle so many items of unknown ownership from a single event, said Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, a spokesperson. How owners will claim their belongings is still being worked out, since estates will likely be involved in getting items to their rightful heirs.

Officers give special care to religious artifacts, often identified by a rotating crew of rabbis working side-by-side with the police in the sorting tent. Torahs, menorahs, mezuzas — the rabbis are on the lookout for anything that might be of holy significance to the many Jewish families who lived in Champlain Towers. Bibles have also been found, Murillo said.

But getting any of that to the people so desperately longing to be reunited with what might be left of their crushed homes or their lost loved ones’ possessions seems likely to take a while. Survivors know they will have to be patient.

Candiotti, who had bought Unit 407 just 16 months ago, kept his coin collection in a safe, along with his passport and other important documents. Coins appealed to him, because they felt like something of real value (“I don’t trust the bank,” he said.) His grandmother taught him about coins when he was a boy.

“She always put gold coins and valuable things in her bra. Her bra!” he recalled with a chuckle. “That was her bank.”

The portrait of his mother hung in the living room and had a “beautiful story,” he said. He used to own an electronics store in South Beach and kept a photo of his mother by the cash register. One day, a man walked in asking for work. When the man told Candiotti that he was a painter, Candiotti bought him a canvas and commissioned a painting of the photograph. He liked it so much he paid the man $500 and has cherished the piece ever since.

“Somebody told me if I find a photo of it on the computer, they could remake it,” Candiotti said. “But I’ll have to see.”

“Everything was destroyed,” he said. “When that floor shook, I didn’t think about anything. I just thought about my life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Patricia Mazzei
Photographs by: Scott McIntyre
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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