FIU Honors the Fallen at Surfside Memorial

Memorial attendees gather in GC Ballrooms to remember lives lost during the Surfside tragedy. Maya Washburn / PantherNOW

Maya Washburn / Asst. News Director

Four months after the Surfside condominium collapse, FIU commemorated the lives lost by the tragedy with a memorial at the Graham Center (GC) Ballrooms.

“We understand that life is short,” said FIU President Mark Rosenberg on Thursday, Oct. 14, at the event. “We have to somehow find it in ourselves to surmount [tragic] circumstances and be better people as a result.”

FIU President Mark Rosenberg addresses memorial attendees. Maya Washburn / PantherNOW

Ralph Gazitua, Chaplain of Miami-Dade County Police Department, spoke about prayer, something he found solace in during the tragedy’s recovery efforts.

“[During the tragedy], I was asked to come together with other individuals of various different faiths to pray,” said Gazitua. “The more we prayed, the closer our hearts were felt, and they were soothed by prayer.”

Ralph Gazitua addresses memorial attendees. Maya Washburn / PantherNOW

Gazitua led the memorial service in a group prayer, in which he asked for strength, faith and courage for those in mourning.

Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Chief Danny Cardeso, who worked at the collapse site for three weeks, explained what managing the disaster meant for him. 

“An incident commander must be extensively trained and experienced,” said Cardeso. “I can assure you that no amount of training and experience fully prepared anyone to deal with an incident of this complexity and in their own backyard.”

He said the initial tragedy was further exacerbated by a COVID-19 outbreak among the first responders, a hurricane threat and stubborn fire at the site of the collapse which took a few days to extinguish. 

“It was extremely challenging and dangerous,” said Cardeso. “Managing it was very stressful, and provided for a roller coaster of emotions.”

Danny Cardeso addresses memorial attendees. Maya Washburn / PantherNOW

Cardeso also urged the university to improve building codes and work to identify structural degradation threats before they have catastrophic effects.

“Let us demand ever improving building codes that provide for stronger and safer buildings,” said Cardeso. “Let us ensure that buildings are properly maintained and inspected to identify and repair structural degradation and other threats to occupant safety before it’s too late.”

Isabel Vittoria, director of FIU’s Employee Assistance Program, offered insight into the grieving process and what it means for mental health.

“By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate and accept the truth of our losses,” said Vittoria. “Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve.”

Isabel Vittoria addresses memorial attendees. Maya Wasbburn / PantherNOW

She recommended those affected to seek support with FIU’s Counseling & Psychological Services for students, and the Office of Employee Assistance for faculty.

“Help is within reach,” Vittoria. “Let’s not forget that.”

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