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Miami condo collapse stirs painful memories for families of 9/11 victims

"I’m reliving the nightmare of what I went through with 9/11," said one woman whose husband was killed 20 years ago.
Image: People embrace at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan in New York
People embrace at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on Sept. 10, 2015.Andrew Kelly / Reuters file

Monica Iken-Murphy has barely slept through the night since the collapse of Champlain Towers South last week.

She has been glued to cable news coverage of the disaster every day, often breaking down in tears. She is experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The reports from the scene fill her with sorrow and rage.

"It's pure torture for me," Iken-Murphy said in a phone interview Wednesday.

The building collapse has devastated the community of Surfside, Florida, and gripped much of the nation. But the pain is particularly acute for Iken-Murphy, whose first husband was working inside the World Trade Center's South Tower on 9/11.

Monica Iken holds a picture of her husband, Michael Iken, on Sept. 13, 2001.Dale Brazao / Toronto Star via Getty Images

The terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan 20 years ago and the apparent structural failure in Surfside last Thursday are not identical. But there are awful parallels between the two events in their imagery, in the excruciating recovery efforts and in the far-reaching emotional toll.

The victims in the Miami area "died for no reason, whereas my husband died because of evil people in planes," Iken-Murphy said. "I'm feeling more horrible for them because their tragedy could have been prevented, whereas ours could not."

The condominium collapse was a "double whammy" of pain for Iken-Murphy, 51, who lives in Manhattan and advocates for 9/11 victims and their families.

She finds herself flashing back to the death of her husband, Michael Patrick Iken, whose remains were never recovered from ground zero. She is also increasingly worried about structural deficiencies at her vacation home in Montauk, a beach community on the easternmost point of Long Island.

"I'm reliving the nightmare of what I went through with 9/11, and I'm living it in Montauk," she said. She added that her summer condominium on Long Island is built on wetlands, and she believes it is deeply vulnerable to collapsing one day.

Firefighters at World Trade Center in New York, on Sept. 12, 2001, one day after the terrorist attack.Porter Gifford / Corbis via Getty Images file

Mary Fetchet, whose 24-year-old son, Brad, was killed on 9/11, said the events in Miami could intensify the trauma of those who lost loved ones 20 years ago.

"You really have to limit your exposure to images and video. The replaying of the recovery effort and firsthand accounts can be very triggering for anyone, but in particular for those that have lost a loved one on 9/11 or a similar tragedy," said Fetchet, the founding director of the Voices Center for Resilience, an organization that provides support services to people affected by 9/11 and other traumas.

Eileen Torres is also struggling with wrenching recollections of 9/11. Torres' cousin Manuel Del Valle Jr., a firefighter with Manhattan's Engine Company 5, was killed that day. He was one of more than 400 emergency workers who died responding to the attack.

"I'm staying away from the news channels because it brings back lots and lots of painful memories," Torres said. "The gatherings of people. The smoldering."

She is struck by one similarity in particular.

"It's not the cause of the collapse or the magnitude," said Torres, 51, the executive director of a social services agency in the Bronx. "It's the idea of relatives holding out hope that their loved ones are somewhere inside, surviving."

"It's what a number of us were clinging to for quite some time after 9/11," Torres added.

The search and rescue crews in Surfside have been scouring the wreckage for signs of life. But the work is painstaking and complex. Yes, many are hoping for a miracle. But it has been a week since the last survivor was discovered.

Emergency workers conduct search and rescue efforts at the site of a partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Fla., on June 30, 2021.Joe Skipper / Reuters

The number of people unaccounted for stood at 145 on Thursday morning, and officials have said 18 people are confirmed dead. The recovery crews paused their work early Thursday over fears that the rest of the building might come down.

"Everybody is praying for you and your loved ones," Torres said, fighting back tears. "Everybody is praying for the best but, unfortunately, you prepare for the worst. It's a pain that's not describable."

Fetchet said that the protracted recovery effort is likely to be intensely stressful for the families involved.

"You can't proceed with a funeral or a memorial service. The normal processes that families go through after somebody dies are delayed," she said.

Iken-Murphy said she wants to do as much as she can to help people who lost loved ones in Surfside — and that includes encouraging them to be honest about their raw emotional state as they process their grief.

"I know what they're going through, and I would be irate right about now. I want them to understand that it's OK to feel irate. What happened to them is wrong," she said.

"You should be safe in the building where you live and where you go to sleep. The poor family members — they'll never be the same, they'll always worry," Iken-Murphy said. "The people who were in charge of protecting you failed."