SURFSIDE, FL. – Six-year-old John Paul Rodriguez keeps telling Dad to call his missing grandmother’s cell phone.
“Her cell phone could be broken,” he says, “but try again.”
Elena Blasser, 64 years old, is among 159 people still listed as missing after a 12-story oceanfront condominium building in Miami-Dade County, Florida, plummeted Thursday, leaving dozens of residents trapped. Rescue efforts were underway and crews were making their way 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, Blasser’s son, Pablo Rodriguez, is gripped by fear. Elena Chavez, 88, Blasser’s mother and Rodriguez’s grandmother also disappeared. She decided to sleep over the apartment the night before the building collapsed.
John Paul knows his grandmother and great-grandmother were in the building when it collapsed,and he seems to think it will be all right. But the probable loss bites Rodriguez. He recently finished renovating the pool in his backyard, and his little son is patiently waiting for Saturday to jump in with both of them.
“What will I tell my son?” Rodriguez, 40, said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Saturdays are the days of abuel.”
A harmonious family prepares for bad news
After the building partially collapsed, a a huge cloud of dust engulfed the Surfside settlement it has long been a peaceful enclave for many Jewish and Argentine-American families in South Florida, as well as for other Latin Americans, Americans, and the international population.
For Rodriguez, part of his life also collapsed.
Every Saturday morning the doorbell rang at his house.
Rodriguez’s son John Paul would excitedly open the door to hug Chavez, whom he calls “Yeyi,” and Blesser, whom he calls “Ama.” The two of them would catch the boy with wide open eyes and drive him to a local Cuban bakery for fresh guava paste.
They would spend the day at the pool or playing on the beach next to the now demolished Champlain Towers.
They never missed Saturday.
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 to New York, only to settle in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s.
Chavez, once a devoted teacher, was impressed by her daughter’s love of learning, who also became a teacher.
The family moved to Miami in 1978, setting up duplex homes so the mother and daughter could live in the neighborhood.
Although his parents divorced as a child, Rodriguez described being blessed with an idyllic Cuban American childhood in Miami: his abuelo taught him to play baseball in Tamiami Park, running behind an ice cream truck with his mom, smelling his grandmother’s black beans.
“No one is doing it black beans like her, “Rodriguez said.” She tried to teach everything and my wife, but for some reason they don’t have the same taste. “
There’s still a plastic tub of margarine in Rodriguez’s fridge filled with a bunch of black beans that Chavez cooked.
After the divorce, Blasser raised two children as a single mother on a teacher’s salary in a public school, while at the same time supporting two elderly parents.
“Now I know why we would take stale bread on the weekends and go to the canal to feed the ducks,” Rodriguez said. “It didn’t cost.”
The victims demanded that the family lean on each other, Rodriguez said.
“If my mom was sitting here right now, she’d tell you,” he said, “her only mission was to be unique.”
‘Buildings don’t just collapse’
When Rodriguez was in high school, his mother married Joseph Blasser, a Jewish Panamanian businessman she met in Miami.
Years later, after retiring from school, Elena Blasser sold the house and saved her lifelong dream of living near water with her savings. In 2009, she and her husband purchased unit number 1211 Champlain Towers South.
“My mother loved the beach. She loved sitting in the water like a buoy, ”Rodriguez said.
There were many days on the beach. Weekends on the beach. Sand walks. Every July, Rodriguez would travel with his family, including Blasser and Chavez, to various tropical places. They visited the Cayman Islands, Mexico and the Turks and Caicos.
These were other places they hoped to visit.
Rodriguez last spoke to his mother and grandmother on Wednesday around 7 p.m. He said his mother complained of hearing rumbles in the building, but that she thought nothing of it.
“They were in perfect health, and then it happens, your land was taken away – literally,” says Rodriguez. “Every time I close my eyes, I see pictures on the news of the fall of the tower. Every time.”
Rodriguez’s stepfather is not damaged. Joseph Blasser was on a business trip when his home collapsed. He returned Thursday and found his wife missing.
A a lawsuit against Champlain Towers South was filed late Thursday night. The court submission argued that the condominium did not fix the structural problems and did not prevent the collapse of the building. Although the cause of the collapse has yet to be determined, The USA TODAY has discovered that a building built in 1981 has been sinking since the 1990s, according to a study conducted by experts.
Rodriguez said that his mother did not approve of the management of the apartment association. But regardless of the outcome of the investigation or the expected tsunami of lawsuits, Rodriguez said he felt cheated. His mother and grandmother were in perfect health.
“Buildings aren’t just collapsing in Miami,” he said as tears rolled down his face.
Family members hand over DNA samples while waiting for answers
On Friday afternoon, Rodriguez drove to the Surfiside community center where the evacuees and the families of the missing people from the tragic death of the building were housed.
Some people sat in folded chairs draped in American Red Cross blankets. The sound of people’s voices bounced off the walls. Volunteers – many of them from the local Orthodox Jewish community – moved here and there sharing food. Grilled fish, kosher burgers, potato salad. Others set up tents to protect families from the rain and collect aid.
Rodriguez and his wife waited in line in front of the double doors. He was there to give a DNA sample in the hope that the remains of his relatives would be identified.
As he stood in line, he was approached by a Jewish Hasidine in a traditional black hat.
“Do you have a place to go for the Sabbath?” 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, come here, ”said the man with a thick 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 drove to pick up their son, who had spent the day playing at a friend’s house.
There are a lot of unanswered questions, Rodriguez thought. Were his mother and grandmother alive? What happened? Who is responsible?
And then there was the most painful question, the one he still couldn’t answer for his son: “Are Ama and Yeyi coming tomorrow?”
Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi