He was close to both and at times gets sad that he can’t talk to them, but a therapist has taught him to refocus his mind on happy memories when he gets down, Rodriguez said. John smiles recalling a trip to the zoo, a toy they brought him or when his parents instructed them not to bring him chicken nuggets or doughnut holes but they did anyway.
One of John’s favorite memories, he tells his parents, is when they took him to Gatorland and his grandmother — no fan of reptiles — “held a snake for me so I could a take a picture while I was holding an alligator,” Rodriguez relayed to CNN.
It’s possible they never will.
Like his son, Rodriguez, 41, misses them painfully, especially on Saturdays when they’d come to his Miami home and spend the day, “breakfast through dinner,” playing games, swimming or visiting the park, he said.
“It was always nice just to be together,” he said.
Rodriguez likes to believe the matriarchs — lovingly dubbed the “Dos Elenas” — passed peacefully, never waking when the building came down, but his recurring nightmares tell him differently. He can tamp his imagination when he’s awake and push the thoughts out of his head, but they sneak up on him when he’s sleeping,
“The best I can describe it is a combination of (filmmakers) Michael Bay-and-Quentin Tarantino violence,” he said. “I’m inside the apartment unit seeing it, and they’re awake and running and the details are very, very vivid.”
Much has happened in a year
Surfside will hold a memorial Friday commemorating the lives of those lost. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell is slated to attend the event with Mayor Shlomo Danzinger, and First Lady Jill Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks.
The cogs of government have been whirring for the last year, trying to deliver some measure of reparation to the survivors and relatives of those killed, but there hasn’t been much in the way of accountability.
The law could lead to substantial costs for thousands of condo owners across Florida, which initially led to an impasse among lawmakers who ended the regular session of the Legislature in March without passing any changes to state law. They sorted it out weeks later in a special session.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” said state Sen. Jason Pizzo, whose district includes Surfside. “There are some tough love measures, but the state has … a compelling interest to improve and save people’s lives that live in cooperatives and condominiums — and this will do that.”
What it didn’t provide is accountability for the collapse. Nor did the settlements, which did not delineate any blame.
‘Entire families were lost’
Rodriguez has been struggling with closure. He thought he might attain some semblance last month when he visited the Miami-Dade Police Department after being informed relatives could pick up any belongings that had survived the collapse and made it through the decontamination process.
The police were warm and sensitive, Rodriguez said, but they didn’t disclose what had been recovered. Family members found out only when they arrived. Rodriguez collected a thumb drive — containing a few documents, no photos — and a toaster oven. The item with the most sentimental value was his grandmother’s Ray-Ban aviators. The lenses were scuffed, but the sunglasses Elena Chavez wore all the time were in otherwise solid condition.
“Very surprising because I expected the lenses to be popped out and the frames to be destroyed,” Rodriguez said.
He’s apprehensive about the settlement process — and not just because the money is being delivered to victims and survivors without holding anyone to account. Even more disheartening is the prospect of proving to a court what his mother’s and grandmother’s lives were worth, he said.
Florida law establishes limits on what children and extended family members can collect — which Rodriguez, a lawyer, finds “extremely antiquated and out of touch with reality,” especially in a mass casualty event. He has until the middle of next month to submit his claim and then he will go before a committee and a judge to deliver his case for a portion of the settlement.
“It’s definitely something I’m not looking forward to: sitting there in front of a group of people and…” he paused, conceding he has yet to collect his thoughts. “I’m not even sure what.”
To Rodriguez, it feels like companies involved in the settlement are simply throwing money at victims, hoping they’ll quietly go away, while grief-ridden loved ones are left to sort out who gets a cut of the “financial I’m sorry,” he said.
“People lost their children, siblings, wives, husbands,” he said. “Entire families were lost, and everyone just threw their hands up and said, ‘I’m not responsible. Here is my insurance company.'”
As for what will deliver closure, Rodriguez is unsure. He visited a therapist shortly after the disaster, but he wasn’t in the right mindset, he said. He’ll try again later.
“The closest thing would be having some kind of accountability, but even then I’m not sure that would bring me the closure, but it might bring me a little bit closer,” he said. “They continue to say, ‘Time heals everything,’ and over time I’m sure that is correct, but approaching a year now … I’m not anywhere near being OK.”
CNN’s Leyla Santiago, Jaide Timm-Garcia, Carlos Suarez, Steve Contorno, Jamiel Lynch and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.