Surfside Collapse Anniversary Connects Jewish World

Surfside Collapse Anniversary Connects Jewish World

One year after tragedy, shock and fear leave some speechless.

Tzvi and Itty Ainsworth, pictured at a family celebration, were killed in the building collapse. They both had family and friends in Atlanta.
Tzvi and Itty Ainsworth, pictured at a family celebration, were killed in the building collapse. They both had family and friends in Atlanta.

One-year anniversaries of tragic events are always difficult. So it is for the families and friends of the 98 people killed in the middle-of-the-night partial collapse of the 12-story oceanfront condo building in Surfside, Fla., as well as for those who managed to survive one of the deadliest building disasters in the nation’s history.

Several family members and friends of former Surfside residents are part of the Atlanta Jewish community. Some eagerly shared stories of their loved ones just days after the June 24, 2021, tragedy; others couldn’t speak of it then — nor can they today. The shock is still there.

It has been a traumatic year. The building is gone, but investigations into the cause of the collapse continue, as do debates about what should be built on the property site. A memorial ceremony was held on the anniversary of the disaster. And just a day before the anniversary, a Florida judge approved a $1.2 billion settlement for families of those who were killed and for the owners of condos in the building.

According to NPR, owners of the condo units will split proceeds of the sale of the land, totaling nearly $100 million. Families of the victims, as well as residents with injury and trauma claims, will split the nearly $1 billion, to be paid by a couple dozen defendants. The Florida judge said the amounts paid to individual families will vary. Hearings for families requesting claims are scheduled for Aug. 1.

Esther Lubel (center) with sister and brother-in-law, Betty and Jimmy Coiffman, who found a new apartment away from the ocean.

Besides its extraordinary death toll, the worldwide ripple effects of this tragedy were unique at least partly because of the high percentage of Jews impacted around the globe. Tzvi and Ingrid “Itty” Ainsworth, 68 and 66 years old respectively, were among the dead. Tzvi was from Australia; Ingrid was from Montreal, where the two had met, according to longtime friend Rabbi Yossi New, regional director of Chabad of Georgia and the founding rabbi of Beth Tefillah. Ingrid was also an aunt of Chabad of Cobb Rabbi Ephraim Silverman, who declined to speak to the AJT.

The couple, who had moved to Florida about four years earlier, are survived by seven children, many grandchildren and numerous close friends.

Also among the victims were Camp Judaea alumni Deborah Berezdivin, who was born in Puerto Rico, and Ilan Naibryf, originally from Argentina. Miriam Panitch, daughter of Atlanta criminal defense attorney and candidate for a seat in the Georgia General Assembly Esther Panitch, was a friend of the two. She had been staying in another part of the condo complex the night of the disaster. Miriam declined to speak to the AJT.

Former Atlantan Sara Nir is also an Israeli native. She and her two children lived in a ground-floor condo at Champlain Towers South. Hearing unusual noises, Nir and her children were able to escape the building. All three survived.

“I believe the fear will never go away,” said Atlantan Esther Lubel (center) of the aftereffects of the disaster.

The sister and brother-in-law of Atlantan Esther Lubel, who lived on the 10th floor of the ill-fated condo complex, also survived. Betty and Jimmy Coiffman had fortunately lived in the section of the building that didn’t collapse, although it was later demolished. Lubel told the AJT days after the collapse that she had awakened at 3 a.m. and saw the news about the 1:30 a.m. disaster on her phone screen.

From that moment until 6 a.m., Lubel said she stayed on the phone with her eldest sister “to make sure she was okay.” According to Lubel, the Coiffmans were night owls and were just closing the blinds on their condo windows when they heard what sounded like a thunderstorm and the building shook. They put on their tennis shoes, got dressed and grabbed his wallet and her purse and fled.

“They went down the cracking stairs to the second floor and then to the garage where cars were flipped and there was water and rubble,” said Lubel, who, along with her sisters, was born in Colombia. Rescuers helped them climb on top of cars and used a ladder to escape the crumbling building.

“Our parents had been visiting until the Tuesday before the disaster,” said Lubel, who had also planned to visit at the time. “I have been nervous just thinking if something had happened to them,” she said.

The Coiffmans had rented the furnished condo just two weeks before the collapse, to be near their daughter. Days before the one-year anniversary, Lubel was visiting her sister and brother-in-law in Florida.

“This week has been very difficult because they are reliving what happened last year. They are very nervous and have not been able to sleep well every night. The other night, it was thundering and since the noise is very similar to what they heard that night, it wakes them up and startles them quite badly. I was very nervous that night as well, since I was with them and saw how they reacted, even a year later.”

Lubel doesn’t know how the settlement will affect her family. Although they were renting their furnished condo, the family lost their personal effects. According to Lubel, “it took a while to find” a new apartment. One of the conditions was that the new apartment not be located near the ocean.

Looking back over the year, Lubel believes the worst aspect of the experience for her family has been the psychological part.

“I believe the fear will never go away. I am just thankful to HaShem that they made it out alive,” she said.

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