By Jim DeFede

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – No single event defined 2021 in South Florida more than the tragedy in Surfside and even now, six months later, the community is still struggling to come to grips with it.

Ninety-eight people lost their lives on June 24th when the Champlain Towers South collapsed in on itself in less than 20 seconds.

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On that first morning, Rachel Spiegel held out hope her mother Judy may have survived. “When we went to sleep last night, we would have never imagined that this is what we would be waking up to,” she told CBS4 News. “And we’re heartbroken and we want my mom to know how much we love her and we’re here, we’re not going anywhere. We are not giving up hope.”

Hoping however was not enough. It would take a little more than a month before Judy Spiegel’s remains and the bodies of the other 97 victims to be recovered amid the rubble.

The Surfside disaster set off a wave of concerns about the safety of other buildings across South Florida, with city officials from Miami Beach to North Miami Beach rushing inspections and shutting down some buildings and surprising residents.

In the months since the Surfside collapse, the focus has turned to determining the cause. Teams of investigators are analyzing concrete and rebar samples. It may take months – possibly years – before a definitive answer is known. Although it seems likely that no single reason may have led to the collapse, but rather a series of events over decades, including saltwater intrusion, poor designing, inferior materials, and a massive construction project next door that may have rattled the foundation.

A Grand Jury report urged greater care in building inspections in the future and urged condo boards to place the lives of their residents ahead of saving money.

Surfside did offer moments of hope. People from across South Florida donated millions of dollars to help those in need after they lost everything in the collapse.

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Sometimes though it is the smallest donations that speak the loudest, as we saw with sisters Gia and Bianca Aranbula who set up a lemonade stand for first responders.

But in South Florida wherever there is good, evil is always lurking as we discovered in September when four people were arrested for stealing the identities of Surfside victims and buying thousands of dollars in items on credit cards issued in the name of three people who died in the collapse and a fourth who survived.

One controversy that remains is the fate of the land where the building collapsed. There are those who want it to become a memorial or a park – they believe a new building should not be built on what is essentially a gravesite.

But others argue the only way to offer the financial compensation the victims of Surfside deserve is by selling the land to a developer for upwards of $120 million.

And the judge in the case has made it clear the land will be sold to a developer.

Surfside is now a part of South Florida’s history – a single word that evokes harrowing memories – just like Parkland and Andrew. As part of the CBS documentary, “Bonded by Tragedy,” Miami-Dade Police Director Freddy Ramirez explained what will always be so haunting about Surfside.

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“It’s just ghostly,” he said. “The beautiful sky, a beautiful beach, beautiful buildings. And one of the worst things that’s ever happened in Miami-Dade County happened right there.”

Jim DeFede