SURFSIDE, Fla. — Ruby Romero Isaev is still in shock after seeing the collapsed remains of the Miami Beach condominium where she lived four years ago. The disaster early Thursday killed at least four people, leaving 159 still unaccounted for and 11 injured.
“The Surfside community is small," said Romero Isaev, 63, who now lives in a building adjacent to the one that collapsed. "We all know each other and bump into one another at the beach, at the park and the market. We were all crying.”
As frantic search and rescue efforts continued into Friday, Romero Isaev said she and others are working to helping those who escaped.
The tiny multicultural town of Surfside, with a population of about 6,000, has seen a growth in its South American residents over the years. Some came to the States as their home countries were roiled by crises — from Argentina’s economic depression in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the political turmoil experienced in Venezuela. More recently, some have arrived in Florida as a result of the raging Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to devastate South American countries like Brazil.
Romero Isaev came to the U.S. from Venezuela in 1997.
Jose Manuel Pupo Cabrera, 48, moved to Surfside from Cuba and started working two years ago doing maintenance in the building next to the collapsed tower. He was called in to work at 4 a.m. Friday, he said, as he hurried to get there amid heavy traffic and gathered onlookers.
Pupo Cabrera said he was acquainted with many of the people who lived in the building because of his work.
"It was terrible. It's a horrible sensation that I continue to feel," he said. "I'm very sad. Una locura [a craziness]."
The Argentinian Consulate in Miami said in a news release issued Thursday that nine of the people who are unaccounted for are Argentinians.
The sister of Paraguayan first lady Silvana López Moreira and her family, as well as a worker, were also unaccounted for Friday.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Paraguay has said six Paraguayans were among those still not located.
As rescuers continued the dangerous task of digging through rubble, a constant hum of helicopters could be heard overhead. The air was hazy and smelled of smoke.
Onlookers tried to get close to the scene, taking photos and recording video.
Esteban Saavedra, 54, a restaurant worker who came from Chile four years ago, lives a few blocks from the collapsed building. He said he lost power the night the building collapsed but didn't realize what caused it until morning.
He said he is "saddened for the people who passed away because there are big buildings being constructed in the area."
The nephew of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Claudio Bonnefoy, was among those unaccounted for, according to NBC Miami.
The Miami Herald reported that some also were from Cuba, Chile and Puerto Rico. In addition, the Israeli government said about 20 of its citizens have not been located, Telemundo reported.
The proximity to disaster left Romero Isaev filled with a mix of relief, fear and questions.
“I keep thinking of everything that happened, everything that could have happened and why it wasn’t me,” she said.
To deal with her trauma, Romero Isaev has been collecting donations at the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida, which she owns with her husband.
Her condominium is filling with donations of water, blankets, snacks, reading glasses and clothes. All the items are being taken to a nearby synagogue, The Shul in the town of Bal Harbour.
President Joe Biden declared a national disaster and deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Surfside to handle the response.
Because some of the victims or those unaccounted for have families in other countries, the administration and lawmakers are faced with the task of creating a pathway for people from Latin America to come to the U.S. during a pandemic.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted, “We are continuing to get emergency visas approved for people from over a dozen countries who have close relatives among the missing in Surfside," and added that some had already arrived. The office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes Surfside, said the congresswoman is working with the State Department to get visas.
The State Department said that visa records are confidential and that it could not discuss individual visa cases. "Our hearts are with all of those affected by the tragic partial building collapse near Miami, Florida," the statement added.
The tragedy also creates a complex situation for Venezuelans with family members who were killed or remain unaccounted for because of the collapse. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, making visits more complicated.
Laura Ortiz, a spokeswoman for Rubio, said there have been numerous calls with requests for emergency visas.
Adding to the difficulty is the ongoing pandemic. The U.S. would screen travelers before they enter, she said.
Aida Merino, 63, lives in Surfside not far from where the building collapsed.
“This is so tragic. I’m very scared," Merino said. "I hope all the buildings that are near the beach are checked to make sure they are up to code.”