The Surfside debris has been cleared, but one victim is still missing. Her loved ones want answers.



National

This April 17, 2021, photo shows Estelle Hedaya at The Deck at Island Gardens in Miami. Liz Segel via AP

Day by day, their numbers dwindled.

As authorities sifted through the ruins of Champlain Towers South, the hotel conference room where loved ones awaited answers emptied slowly, then in a sudden rush. The friends and family of 10 people were still waiting, then five, then three.

By Thursday, four weeks after the Surfside, Fla., condominium building crashed to the ground, just one person remained missing.

While others planned funerals, sat shiva and laid their loved ones to rest, those close to Estelle Hedaya could only keep waiting to hear what had happened to the outgoing, adventurous New York native – this time, with a new loneliness.

“They’re closing the support room, there’s nothing left, it’s finished,” best friend Lisa Shrem said. “The site is even cleared below the foundation, so I feel like it’s, ‘OK, close the book.’

“What could be worse than that?”

The painstaking search that began in the early morning hours of June 24 after two massive sections of the 12-story oceanfront building abruptly gave way is approaching its end. Ninety-six people have been recovered lifeless from the rubble. Another died at the hospital after being pulled from the debris.

Now what’s left of Champlain Towers South is a clear concrete slab lined by orange cones and speckled with wiring and a severed column. Rescuers have sifted through 26 million pounds of concrete and rubble, and they are now searching through debris moved off-site for any remains. They have not yet found Hedaya.

“We are continuing to search with enormous care and diligence and to work closely hand-in-hand with faith leaders as we have since the beginning of this process,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in a Wednesday statement. But, she added, “in collapses like this one it is unfortunately very difficult to recover all the remains.”

Hedaya’s friends and family said the weeks without answers have been agonizing. Deeply religious, they have not been able to fulfill sacred Jewish burial traditions, and Linda Hedaya said she fears her daughter is not resting, “because she’s not in the place she’s supposed to be.”

They worry the funny, exuberant 54-year-old, whom Shrem said was outgoing enough that she could “talk to a wall,” will be forgotten. They describe her as an adventure-seeker, traveling the world with her girlfriends and often trying new things – salsa dancing, ballroom dancing, even pole dancing.

“She loved her life,” Linda Hedaya said. “She loved everything around her.”

From the beginning, it was a treacherous, obstacle-plagued search. Rescue crews were frequently forced to pause their efforts – because of small blazes in the rubble, nearby lightning strikes, concerns about the stability of the still-standing part of the building. The remaining portion of the condo had to be demolished to open up inaccessible areas.

In the conference room where families gathered daily for news, their shared grief bringing them close, authorities had only a rising death toll to share.

For many, survival or death came down to their condo unit number. When the central and east sections of the building broke from the towers’ south side, it tore the 04 apartments in half. In those units, the master bedrooms collapsed into the rubble, while the living rooms were left standing, allowing some a chance to survive.

Hedaya lived in Unit 604.

From her perch with a view of the Atlantic Ocean, she planned trips abroad, hosted virtual get-togethers and penned a blog in which she shared the story of her life.

On one of their trips, Shrem recalled, the two ventured off a trail and Hedaya had a close encounter with an ox. Her blue eyes widened, and Shrem joked about Hedaya always wanting a boyfriend. The ox ran off, but in Hedaya’s “very, very dramatic” retelling, “the story morphed into a bull who charged her stomach,” Shrem said, laughing.

Although Hedaya had been raised in a religious community where many women she grew up with married young, she took a different path, friends said. She wasn’t married and hadn’t given up on love, but she enjoyed life as a single woman. She loved watching the waves from her balcony, with the sun setting over Collins Avenue. On Fridays, she held “Hedaya Happy Hour.”

“She enjoyed her own company, the friends she surrounded herself with,” said friend Rachel Sabbagh.

Hedaya chronicled her relationships, travels and everyday life in an online blog called “Follow the Toes,” writing in deep and personal terms. She described herself as a “New Yorker taking Miami by storm” and spoke of the friends she left behind in New York – women who “are all beautiful, smart, strong, successful and self sufficient.”

“It has been a long journey but I am so thankful for all the experiences that have made me the woman that I am today,” she wrote. “I have truly evolved in so many ways. I had put out in the universe that I wanted to live in Miami, and boom here I am living the dream.”

She moved to Miami to work for jewelry company Continental Buying Group, rising to chief operating officer within six years. Owner Andie Weinman described her as “your everything girl” – able to steadily grow the company and also able to “party with the best of them.”

The company’s small office hasn’t been the same without her. Joe Murphy, Weinman’s husband and president of the company, misses hearing Hedaya’s booming Brooklyn accent through the wall they shared as she talked on the phone with clients. Now, Weinman said, “Joe comes home and says ‘I hate it, the office is too quiet.’ “

Firefighters are still searching for remains and personal belongings, like jewelry and photo albums. But Levine Cava’s spokeswoman Rachel Johnson said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue would leave the scene “soon,” leaving police to continue the additional search of the wreckage.

The death toll, if Hedaya is located, is expected to rise to 98. Miami-Dade Police Detective Argemis Colome confirmed the only person still unaccounted for is Hedaya.

Occasionally, some of Hedaya’s loved ones imagine that maybe she hasn’t been found because she wasn’t there – that, Shrem said, “maybe like a TV movie,” there’s a different ending.

“Maybe she went out somehow, some way and is laughing at all of us and sipping tequila and lime on a beach in I don’t know where, somewhere else,” Shrem said. “That’s the hope. But, you know, it’s not realistic.”