Everybody in Miami had a connection to the Surfside collapse

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena as a child in Miami in the 1980s.

My dad always reminds me nobody is a prophet in their own land. 

Come to think of it, he might actually be an authority figure on the matter — like every other member of my family. Despite having been born in different corners of the world, by the time my parents and grandparents were my age, they had abandoned their homelands. 

My maternal grandparents were Basque survivors of the Spanish Civil War. As a young child, my grandfather was sent away to an orphanage in France as his older siblings stayed back to fight Gen. Francisco Franco who had overthrown the government. My paternal grandparents were first-generation Cubans, their parents had made their way to the Caribbean island sometime after World War I. 

My mother was born in Spain but raised in Venezuela. My father is a Sephardic “Jewban” and former political prisoner. By 1979, he was twice exiled, once to Europe and subsequently the United States.

I’m Romina Ruiz-Goiriena (yes, that’s a mouthful), a national correspondent at USA TODAY.

As the child and grandchild of immigrants, I didn’t inherit silver heirlooms. Instead, I grew up with a special virtue of freedom— that’s something you can pack in a suitcase. Writer Adam Gopnik describes this gift as one that won’t make you “richer and more powerful, but that it gives you more time to understand what it means to be alive.” Or rather: with a certain responsibility because I had survived.

But like many other “so-called” Miami natives, it wasn’t something we chose or a random geographic occurrence. Everyone’s life here began as a result of different seismic political events that shaped the last 100 years. 

When they got here, Miami was still nascent; a lot younger than other U.S. cities, born of a major railroad expansion project. It also was part of the Jim Crow South where Black and Jewish residents (and later Cubans) were on the receiving end of segregationist practices, economic displacement and systemic oppression. Its location on the map also helped shape its destiny: It has been on the receiving end of large regional burdens such as drug trafficking, immigration, natural disasters and endemic poverty.  Against these conditions, the city grew. I did too.

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All roads lead back to South Florida

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena comforts a mother who lost her son while on assignment in Guatemala for the Associated Press in 2012. Photo taken by Moises Castillo.

I left Miami after high school. Abroad, I became a journalist spending over a decade working in all areas of news: agency wires, newspaper, TV and web. I went on to tell stories from France, Israel and Latin America, primarily about everyday people facing extraordinary challenges. I didn’t parachute in; I lived in these countries, became part of these communities, sometimes found long-lost relatives and learned a language along the way gaining an intimate perspective on the stories I was telling. Some places, Israel, Cuba and Paris felt more like home, or pieces of it — when you’re like me, no one place is ever home. Others, like Guatemala and Central America were completely new. Reporting on a failed drug war, migration, trafficking and genocide, first for the Associated Press and later CNN changed how I approached reporting.

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And like a good prodigal daughter, I eventually returned to the Magic City’s straits.

Fast forward to June 24 at 1:30 a.m. when part of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, collapsed, killing at least 97 people as they slept soundly in their beds.

Images of the pancaked building sent chills around the world. By 6:30 a.m. one of our editors was calling. I knew this couldn’t be good. 

“There’s been a building collapse in Surfside, how far are you?,” she asked. 

“It’s about 40 minutes according to Waze, 25 if I do my Miami thing,” I told her as I tied my sneakers, poured black coffee in a mug, grabbed battery packs and headed for my car. My breaking news adrenaline training kicked in. 

The editor read me in as I was driving on I-95. I started making calls to municipal sources, and learned there was a reunification center for families about 10 blocks north of the towers. I texted some friends to see if I could park my car in their garage knowing all-too-well the police were going to cordon off the perimeter. I walked right past every single officer until I was right on Collins Avenue standing in front of the horrific site. Right away I looked for survivors, onlookers, officers, neighbors — there’s definitely an M.O. to covering any disaster that I knew from my earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and living through suicide bombings and war. 

Reporting on the Surfside Community Center 

It was when I got to the makeshift family reunification site at the Surfside Community Center that I realized this was unlike any other event I had ever covered. 

Crowds of people moved from one side to the other. Some children were sleeping on gym mats. I heard hints of Spanish with a thick Argentine accent. I heard Venezuelans, Colombians and Cubans. Others spoke Haitian Creole. 

Members from the orthodox synagogue up the street were setting up tables with coffee, juice, a kosher breakfast spread with fruit and bagels for everyone. Aside from county police officers, EMTs from Hatzalah, an Israeli volunteer-based organization were on site tending to families going into shock. Some wore a kippah and tzitzit, ritual fringes.

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Press wasn’t allowed in, but I blended in. 

Bo bevakasha,” come here please I hear in Hebrew. I look up and see the Israeli Consul Maor Elbaz-Starinsky.

Slicha, ani kotevet mi USA TODAY, I’m a reporter from USA TODAY,” I said as I lunged at him to ask if there were any Israelis missing and if the country would send rescue teams to Miami. 

I filed my mini feed on my cellphone and sent it off. 

I spent the day interviewing survivors, family members and others who too were displaced. Those who were willing to talk told me their life story, sometimes sharing other traumas.

I spoke with Moshe Candiotti, a 67-year-old collapse survivor who was a soldier during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in Israel and told me about how the sounds that night took him back to the Sinai Desert. A mother waiting for news of her missing son told me she was in Buenos Aires during the AMIA bombing in 1994, when a suicide bomber drove a van bomb into the Jewish community center killing 85 people. 

Everyone knows someone in Miami

Everywhere I turned I found people that I intuitively somehow knew. Or rather, knew their home country, understood their history, and could speak to them in their mother tongue. Each person I encountered, there was a backstory about something I had learned as part of being a reporter in the Middle East and Latin America. There was also a geist, a je ne sais quoi of accumulated experiences that comes with that perennial nostalgia you can never shake off as the child of immigrants, as a Jew, as a reporter — especially one of color. 

And that was before I too realized I had connections to the building. My dad told me one of the survivors, Ileana Monteagudo, dated my uncle back in Cuba. Her brother served time in political prison with my dad.  The Kleiman family that perished had deep roots in Havana’s Jewish community before leaving toPuerto Rico after Fidel Castro’s revolution. Three of the victims were all recent graduates of Venezuela’s Colegio Moral y Luces Herzl-Bialik founded by my friend’s grandparents in Caracas. 

As beautifully chronicled by the Miami Herald’s Linda Robertson, everybody in Miami knew somebody from that building; “inside the ‘condo of the abuelas,’ a walk down any hallway was a feast for the senses. The smells of frying plantains, baking challah bread and roasting brisket mingled with the sounds of Willy Chirino’s salsa hits and telenovela actors’ operatic dialogue.” 

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I was standing before the disaster of a lifetime in my hometown

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena as a teenager while filming a student documentary on former Cuban political prisoners in Miami.

What would otherwise have been a hyperlocal story had heartstrings to all of my adopted hometowns. It allowed me to navigate each account with deep empathy and respect; any of them could have been my cousins, grandparents, tíos and tías. But it also sowed the seeds to accountability stories and exclusives ahead of other national outlets.

When people trust you with their feelings, they can trust you with their documents.The best stories go after the truth as evenly-handed as they show empathy. 

It’s why I’ll never forget Pablo Rodriguez, 40, who lost his mother and grandmother in the collapse. It was the worst day of his life and yet he chose to talk to us. 

He too is a Miami native, from Westchester, a neighborhood in southwest Miami-Dade County. We bonded over the small movie theater that was the talk of the town when it opened up in the ’90s, baseball and our abuelas. 

I told him my 92-year-old grandmother had passed away in May. When I asked him what he’d miss most he said her black beans, “nobody makes frijoles negros like she does,”  he said.

I totally got what he meant. I had spent all of COVID-19 promising my grandmother I’d come over for her infamous chicharos or Cuban split-pea soup, after I got the vaccine but didn’t make it in time. 

He told me his grandmother, Elena Chávez, would always show up with a freshly cooked batch of beans. That’s when I knew to ask if he had some and where she stored them. If she was a Cuban grandmother there was no way they’d be stored in a fancy Tupperware container. I wanted that detail in the story. 

He let out a laugh amid the sea of tears, “qué tupper ni qué tupper, what tupperware?”

That’s when he told me, there was still a plastic margarine tub in his fridge with the last beans she cooked for her beloved grandson. 

Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi

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