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Searchers recover Surfside victims' possessions, but returning them is complicated

"Sometimes you see something that makes you ponder, like when you find a child's artwork," a police spokesperson said of the recovery effort.
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SURFSIDE, Fla. — The building that collapsed in Surfside is unrecognizable: What was a high-rise home to many is now a gray pile of concrete and rebar mixed with the occasional flash of residents' possessions.

While the effort to find the bodies of victims in the deadly collapse is coming to a close, officials said Tuesday, crews continue to recover valuable personal objects from the building's wreckage.

Onlookers watch from the road as excavators scrape off layers of debris. Meanwhile, searchers slowly dig through and continue to retrieve a myriad of personal items from the site — that they've divided into a grid of nine squares — including jewelry, cash, art, firearms and children's toys.

The question that looms over the entire effort, however, is how they will return those objects to their rightful owners and what legal challenges that could create.

Image: Search shifts to recovery operation at Surfside condo collapse
An excavator digs through the mound of debris from the collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla., on Friday.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Miami-Dade County Police Sgt. Danny Murillo, who is leading the effort to retrieve possessions, said his team has developed a meticulous process to catalog the items and store them respectfully. The focus of the effort is retrieval, he said; creating a system to return the items will happen later.

"Our main goal is to recover property which has a sentimental and religious value," Murillo said. "It means making sure that the process was done carefully and meticulously, and we hope eventually to return the property to its rightful owners."

As of now, all of the property recovered by police is impounded as evidence and taken to a temporary site. Members of Murillo's team, dressed in protective plastic coveralls, place the objects into evidence bags that they label with as many details as they can, including the numbers of the grids where the items were found. The bags are then heat sealed and placed in boxes. Once each box is filled, it is sealed and placed in a shipping container. Murillo is the only person who has a key to the container.

IMAGE: Police sort posessions found in the Miami-area condo collapse
Miami-Dade County police workers store and catalog items found in the ruins of Champlain Towers South.Miami-Dade Police

Because many Jewish people lived in the building and some items are religiously significant, Murillo and other law enforcement officials are coordinating with Rabbi Yossi Harlig, a volunteer police chaplain.

"There are so many religious artifacts — Bibles and Shabbat candles and other items these homes had — that are very important to the Jewish tradition," Harlig said, noting that even damaged religious items need to be respectfully buried, rather than thrown away. "Just imagine families that lost everything — one of the things they would love to have back and have with them as they continue from generation to generation are these items that they might feel a deep connection to."

Harlig said he has helped police translate names written in Hebrew inside the covers of some items, such as Bibles.

"For the families, it's very comforting knowing that chaplains are working closely with police to make sure we can flag these items of religious significance and make sure they're treated correctly, whether it's a ring, a Bible, a candle or something else," he said.

It remains unclear how families might be able to retrieve their personal items down the road.

Police are being careful to ensure that items of particular value aren't seen by the public to avoid potential false claims, but they're not quite sure how they'll handle returning the belongings to their rightful owners.

"It's a big deal, and it will be an interesting process," said Detective Argemis Colome, a spokesperson for the police department. "The job right now is to grab, catalog and sort everything. That's where we're at right now, and eventually we'll move into the next phase."

Image: Memorial after condo collapse in Miami area
A memorial includes a book belonging to a missing person from the partly collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla.Saul Martinez / Getty Images

That next phase could be a ways out, and it could bring new legal complexities, said Curtis B. Miner, a partner at the Miami law firm Colson Hicks Eidson, where he has worked on similar issues on behalf of families of plane crash victims.

Miner, who is also advising some of the victims' families, said ownership disputes between residents could need to be resolved, along with issues with the estates of victims who died. Cash that is recovered and unclaimed objects may ultimately have to go toward the fund that is divided among the victims.

Photos of a belonging might also be necessary to make a claim, he said, and that kind of evidence could have been lost in the collapse.

"Typically these types of things get resolved by showing some sort of proof of provenance," he said, "You'd have to show a photograph with your grandparents in it with them that includes, say, a prize necklace."

But that speculative phase is a long way off.

In the meantime, Murillo and his team continue to dig, occasionally stopping when a personal item gives them pause.

"Sometimes you see something that makes you ponder, like when you find a child's artwork," he said. "We're all humans, we all have emotions, but at the end of the day, we have to complete this mission."