Estelle Hedaya’s casket was almost feather-light.
Authorities recovered so little of the bubbly New York native, the last of the 98 victims pulled from the wreckage of Champlain Towers South, best friend Lisa Shrem said, “I could have lifted it with my pinkie.”
Hedaya’s loved ones still hope more of her body might be found — either among the unidentified remains at the Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s office, or in the mountains of rubble sitting in a lot near the airport.
But their quest for answers has run up against a new hurdle: County officials are seeking a judge’s permission to dispose of debris considered irrelevant to the investigation. They say the rubble in question has already been searched multiple times.
Some of the relatives who received only part of their loved ones’ remains are calling for the county to continue searching through the piles, noting that each time authorities have done so, they’ve found new remnants.
“Once it’s disposed of, that’s it,” Shrem told The Washington Post. “We have nothing left to tell us that people lived or died in Champlain Towers South.”
The dispute is the latest to anger grieving family members since the condominium collapsed in June, killing 98 people. A judge recently approved a plan to sell the beachfront property for $120 million, upsetting families who want a memorial on the site.
Miami-Dade County spokeswoman Rachel Johnson said it has not been determined what will happen to the debris, but the county wants to explore all the options. She noted there are also environmental concerns when determining what to do with more than 12,000 cubic yards of rubble that includes construction materials.
Officials are also considering looking through the debris again.
“Each of those searches is painstaking and slow, sifting through the rubble,” Johnson said. “They use machines where needed but there is extensive work by hand — teams out there under the sun and rain searching through the remains for anything recognizable.”
Martin Langesfeld said the debris should not be discarded until an investigation into the collapse is complete. His 26-year-old sister, Nicole, and her husband, Luis Sadovnic, 28, died when the building fell, just months after they married and started their lives together. Langesfeld said his family has received less than 50% of her remains.
“It’s very sad to hear how Miami-Dade County wants to throw everything away in the trash and make us forget and move past this,” he told The Post.
Michael Goldberg, a court-appointed receiver tasked with overseeing the ongoing litigation, asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman on Oct. 19 to allow the county to dispose of the rubble deemed “having less significant evidentiary value,” requesting that people have a chance to review the site once more before that happens.
“Over the past several months, the County, through the Miami-Dade Police Department, has carefully and thoroughly sifted through the rubble at the outdoor lots and is confident that all human remains and items of value have been recovered,” he wrote.
Hanzman has not yet issued that order. The next hearing is Nov. 3.
After the initial collapse of the building, local, state and federal officials promised exhaustive efforts to find every missing person, offering hope that some could be pulled out alive.
“We’re going to keep going until everybody is out,” Surfside Mayor Charles W. Burkett said days into the search.
Except in the earliest hours of the catastrophe, there were no survivors found. First responders dug through smoking piles of twisted metal and broken concrete for two weeks before turning to a recovery phase.
Almost every new day yielded the discovery of more victims, ticking the death toll higher and bringing a semblance of closure to families after an agonizing wait. By the time authorities identified remains belonging to Hedaya, 54, it had been more than a month since the building fell — marking an end to the search for victims.
“Nothing we can say or do will bring back these 98 angels who left behind grieving families, beloved friends and loved ones across this community and across the world,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava said at the time. “But we have done everything possible to bring closure to the families.”
Rubble from the site is now held at a lot 14 miles from the ruins of Champlain Towers South, near Miami International Airport. Investigators have separated it into portions considered to have evidentiary value, which are kept inside a warehouse, and parts that are viewed as having less significance and stand in a pile outside.
Not everyone is convinced that all the remains that could be recovered have indeed been found. Langesfeld said authorities told him they have searched the debris four times. He said that’s not enough, especially because he’s been told that upon every new search, even small bits of remains of those killed have been discovered.
Shrem has a similar concern: Authorities told her Hedaya was not found in the initial search, but in one of those that followed. What if they’ve missed something else?
“It’s like the minute they found one small piece of Estelle, just a small piece, they said, ‘OK, we’re finished. We gave everybody something,'” she said. “We have something, and we were hoping that that little something would put it to rest and make us feel closure. But it didn’t give us full closure.”
Given the way the 12-story building fell, with units collapsing in on themselves, debris and body parts commingled, complicating not just the initial recovery process but the continued search for remains, said Joseph Scott Morgan, a forensic expert and professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.
Bone and stone can be nearly indistinguishable to an untrained eye, Morgan said, underscoring the importance of close inspections by forensic anthropologists who can recognize remains. In addition, Florida’s hot, wet climate permeates everything, compromising remains and making it even more difficult to take an accurate DNA reading.
“We’ve been through an entire summer now,” Morgan said, “and the heat never stopped. The humidity never stopped.”
Langesfeld and Shrem say they have not been on the grounds of the site. But they’ve peered at the piles of debris from a parking lot nearby. They are concerned about where their loved ones could end up. Johnson said officials have reached out to family members of the victims to provide a chance to tour the debris, and will offer another chance for the Langesfelds.
“I’m telling them to search one more time at least, because we have very small percentages of loved ones,” Langesfeld said.
Langesfeld said he met for more than two hours with officials from the county earlier this week. There, he made his request again.
“It’s hard to even make them agree to one more time — but they need to keep searching for this until the end. And if it takes a hundred times or a thousand times, then that’s what needs to happen,” he said.
“They were people with families and emotions,” Langesfeld said, “and they cannot be thrown away with trash.”