3 Generations, 8 Families: What the Condo Collapse Took From a Church

On that first Sunday, Father Sosa led his usual morning Mass — but with many empty pews. “When our father read out their names, it broke ...


On that first Sunday, Father Sosa led his usual morning Mass — but with many empty pews. “When our father read out their names, it broke my heart,” Nury Lopez, 51, a parishioner of two decades, said of the list. “These people were here last Sunday.”

Frequently Asked Questions

It could take months for investigators to determine precisely why a significant portion of the Surfside, Fla., building collapsed. But there are already some clues about potential reasons for the disaster, including design or construction flaws. Three years before the collapse, a consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage. Engineers who have visited the wreckage or viewed photos of it say that damaged columns at the building’s base may have less steel reinforcement than was originally planned.

Condo boards and homeowners’ associations often struggle to convince residents to pay for needed repairs, and most of Champlain Towers South’s board members resigned in 2019 because of their frustrations. In April, the new board chair wrote to residents that conditions in the building had “gotten significantly worse” in the past several years and that the construction would now cost $15 million instead of $9 million. There had also been complaints from residents that the construction of a massive, Renzo Piano-designed residential tower next door was shaking Champlain Towers South.

Entire family units died because the collapse happened in the middle of the night, when people were sleeping. The parents and children killed in Unit 802, for example, were Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, a fan of the rock band Kiss and the University of Miami Hurricanes; Anaely Rodriguez, 42, who embraced tango and salsa dancing; Lucia Guara, 11, who found astronomy and outer space fascinating; and Emma Guara, 4, who loved the world of princesses. A floor-by-floor look at the victims shows the extent of the devastation.

A 15-year-old boy and his mother were rescued from the rubble shortly after the building fell. She died in a hospital, however, and no more survivors were found during two weeks of a search-and-rescue mission. There had been hope that demolishing the remaining structure would allow rescuers to safely explore voids where someone could possibly have survived. But only bodies were found. There were 97 confirmed victims through July 14.

Father Sosa, too, struggled to process the dozens of deaths. A few days later, in an essay he titled “A Pastor’s Dilemma,” he posed this question: How do you deal with a group of the faithful who reside at a building that collapses unexpectedly in the middle of the night?

The answer, he wrote at the time, emerged from the tragedy: “You must be present and available, hopeful that God will restore what is broken and will bring peace to those who wait for news of their relatives and friends.”

Not since he was a young priest, when he led a funeral Mass for an older couple who died within 24 hours of each other, had Father Sosa faced so much familial — and congregational — grief.

But two weeks ago, three caskets stood before him, holding the bodies of Marcus Guara, his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, and their small daughters, Lucia and Emma, who were buried together in a single white coffin. Hours before, he was part of the funeral Mass at another nearby church for another collapse victim and St. Joseph’s parishioner, Hilda Noriega.

At those funerals, Father Sosa prayed for and affirmed the strength of family bonds. He has offered comforting words and has asked the loved ones left behind, those unmoored by a collective and compounded anguish, to try to find God within the depths of their devastation. Despite unfathomable loss and darkness, he has told them, they must see light, they must forge ahead.

That next chapter, he said, is healing and remembrance. St. Joseph’s plans to honor the parish families who were killed with a church memorial. And as the weeks eventually give way to months, mending the hearts of parishioners, he said, will require leaning into their faith, listening to one another and “pointing to the goodness in what others who now live have done for those who died.”

Giulia Heyward contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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