Some with bleak hopes and others gathering pieces of memories comfort each other in the once impersonal ballroom at the Seaview Hotel in Surfside as 79 have perished and 61 are still missing in the collapse of Florida condo.
They arrive in the meeting early and stay late, lingering in small groups, talking, hugging each other fighting fathomless grief.
Soriya Cohen’s husband, Brad Cohen, is still missing. Her brother-in-law Gary Cohen was found on Thursday, and her two children are begging rescuers to search a similar grid line to find their father.
“The community outpours so much love,” she said, recalling how volunteers wrapped her in a blanket, brought her food and coffee in the initial days after the collapse and “surrounded me with so much emotional support.”
She still has the blanket, she said in a text on Friday.
Rachel Spiegel, whose mother, Judy, is still missing, said she, her father and brother also have made connections with other families inside the room, but she stopped short of calling it comforting.
“We still don’t know where my mom is. She’s still missing.”
While sobs could be heard in the background on Wednesday night as officials announced they would shift from rescue to recovery, largely dashing any hope of survivors, some families said they won’t feel different until they have final word on their loved ones.
“It’s hard to digest,” Spiegel said in a phone call.
“Many people did say they feel the shift. For us, we just want to find my mom and be reunited with her. We’re still hoping for the best. We’re going to have this shift once we find her and are reunited with her.”
The Cohen family said not having any updates about Brad Cohen was agonizing.
“They will find people in whatever state they are in, however it’s termed,” said Soriya Cohen.
Other families told rescuers they did feel a sense of finality once workers started searching for victims instead of survivors.
“There has been a sort of shift I think toward acceptance but also obviously with that comes some sadness,” said Maggie Castro, a Miami-Dade firefighter and paramedic who keeps relatives updated and has forged her own connections with them, adding that the families are physically and emotionally exhausted.
“It’s a lot, a lot of emotional roller coasters that they’ve been on, just trying to stay positive and hold out the wait,” she said.
The family briefings are surrounded by heavy security, with various checkpoints to protect their privacy.
Organizations set up at a line of tables in the room offer everything from free international phone calls and counseling to clothing and housing.
Several snowbirds are offering their Surfside homes to displaced survivors, said Rabbi Yakov Saacks, a family friend who flew from New York to comfort the Cohens.
The owner of a 16-unit building opened it up rent-free to Surfside survivors for July.
Huge platters of catered food sit day and night, including glatt kosher meals, all donated by community members longing to ease the pain.
Meanwhile, Support Surfside has raised $2 million for victims with another $2 million pledged, and GoFundMe has separately raised $1.7 million for various families.
The nearby Shul has been transformed into a huge clothing and dry goods facility for families to pick up items while they wait.
Saacks described the ballroom as painfully quiet at times.
“While families were either sitting or standing together, they were, for the most part, just silently and painfully waiting for news,” he said.
“While some families would welcome any news at that stage, others would welcome only good news.”