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Champlain Towers South survivor worries about his retirement after losing his apartment in the collapse

 Steve Rosenthal owned unit 705 of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. He survived the collapse on June 24, 2021.
Verónica Zaragovia
Steve Rosenthal owned unit 705 of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. He survived the collapse on June 24, 2021.

Steve Rosenthal, 72, lost the Champlain Towers South apartment he lived in for 20 years. He had planned to sell it in a few years, but now he no longer has a home of his own and says he's worried about affording his retirement.

The money generated from funds, like the sale of the Champlain Towers South property in Surfside, will never be enough to fully compensate anyone for the magnitude of their losses. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman has shared that sentiment several times during status hearing updates.

Hanzman will eventually decide how to allocate the money to survivors who owned apartments in the building and to relatives of victims who died in the June 24, 2021 partial building collapse.

Recently, he appointed a mediator to help attorneys representing victims of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse reach a deal on how to split the funds. A couple of weeks ago, Bruce Greer, the mediator, told Hanzman that they hadn't made progress but he pledged not to give up. The court will receive an update during the next hearing Wednesday, Nov. 3.

Some of the survivors are retired, or getting close to retirement, like Steve Rosenthal.

He's the son of two concentration camp survivors, Jacob and Miriam Rosenthal. Steven Vitto, a researcher at the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center, part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's National Institute for Holocaust Documentation, searched for documents to learn more about the Rosenthal family's story. Steve Rosenthal was born in 1949 in Germany and his parents traveled with him by ship from the German port city of Bremerhaven to Baltimore, Md. that same year.

Steve Rosenthal is 72 years old and had planned to sell his Surfside apartment in a few years, after paying his assessment to complete required repairs and improvements on the Champlain Towers South building. Now, without a home of his own, he's worried about affording his retirement.

Below is a transcript of his story, in his own words, edited for clarity.

ROSENTHAL: I'm a survivor of the Champlain Tower collapse unit number 705. It was a two-bedroom, two-bath, two-balconies, beautiful apartment.

My parents are concentration camp survivors. I was born in Germany, after the war. So now I'm a survivor — double survivor. It's kind of wild.

I moved to Surfside because I wanted a little peace and quiet at night. South Beach was a little bit too much for me and I figured, "Let me go to a quieter area." Surfside, 20 years ago, was fabulous. It was small, oceanfront. The price was right. It was a perfect location.

The building was older, Jewish — Cuban Jewish. But as time went on, the building changed a lot. Younger people were moving in. There were still some older people in there, but it was getting younger year by year. We met at the pool. We talked politics. We talked about the building. Or we talked sports. I worked out with a lot of them in the gym.

So, the night of [the building collapse on June 24] ... going back, I was sleeping and I heard what I thought was the largest thunderclap I ever heard in my life — times 100. That's how loud it was, but I went, OK, it's the end of June. It's Miami. It's humid. There's going to be a really, really, really big storm coming in here. Then I felt the bed shake and the room begin to move. Five seconds later, debris starts to fall from the ceiling on my face.

So I run to the living room, and I can't see anything because of the dust. I go to the front door to see what's going on. When I open the door, there's like a plume of smoke, gas, whatever that was, just shoots at me, just rushes into the apartment, literally knocks me back.

I grabbed a shopping bag and I went to the bedroom. I put on these jeans, I put on some shoes. I grabbed two pairs of jeans, two T-shirts, two pairs of underwear, a belt. My two favorite pairs of shoes. My iPhone, my iPad, some watches, my wallet, some lotions and potions, and that was it.

Because of hurricane preparedness, I'm aware of things that you have to take with you and what's needed if you have to shelter somewhere else. I went out, opened the door again, and saw that there was no escape. So now I'm out on the balcony. We're seeing all the fire rescue coming by the dozens. Even when you're on the cherry picker, you don't know the building is going to fall on you at that time. I didn’t feel safe until I was across the street on a grassy field. I was like a zombie.

I have to give a lot of credit to a person by the name of Michael Capponi. His GM Global Empowerment Mission saved the day for us. He had a kit with an electric toothbrush and power chargers. He gave out prepaid visa cards to every survivor and he gave out housewarming gifts of towels, sheets, pans, plates, silverware and glasses.

Verónica Zaragovia
Steve Rosenthal speaks during an event for survivors of the Champlain Towers South collapse at the Global Empowerment Mission's warehouse in Doral on June 15, 2021. Rabbi Zalman Lipskar stood behind him.

I'm semi-retired. Full-retired probably in a year or two.

Before this collapse, we had an assessment. And we were going to put $15 to 16 million into the building for improvements. My apartment’s appraised now for, say, $700 to 750,000 [thousand]. When the building was all finished with the improvements in two years, it’ll be worth maybe a million, $1.2 million. I planned on selling it when I was 75, 76, retire to Boca or Century Village, and do my golden years like that.

Now everything’s completely changed. The problem now is that we all thought that the land would be sold, say for $120 million. There's $30 million property insurance, so there would be $150 million to be divided. The question becomes, how does this judge divide the extra money? Does he divide that among everybody? Does he just give that to the heirs of the people that died?

So the appraisal came back at $96.5 million. Now I don't have enough. Social security and my IRA [individual retirement account] doesn't cover it if he's only going to give me what the appraisal appraises my unit for.

I don't have 20, 25 years of work ahead of me. I'm done. That money is my future.

All this anxiety that all of us had three, four months ago is just put back in our lap.

I woke up the other day with my back hurting, you slept wrong. Now I have to go on Amazon and buy a heating pad for $25. I had to buy furniture. It cost me thousands of dollars.

So I said to the judge that it's expensive, starting from scratch: "I just got my dust pan and broom last week. I’m still waiting on my bucket for my mop. It’s very expensive, Your Honor."

I'm in the advertising business. I work for a company called IGT Media Holdings/Prime Card, and we do the advertising mostly for restaurants. There was COVID a year before, so no money came in the door. Money just came out of my bank account.

People were just starting to get back in touch with me in the summer, saying, "Steve, OK, we're open and we need to start placing some advertising, reserving space for the season when everybody comes down" ... when the Champlain Towers collapsed. So that pretty much put a damper on going out to work because my car collapsed. I lost my briefcase. I lost all my work utensils. It's been a one two punch for me.

Courtesy: Steve Rosenthal
The Miami-Dade Police Department called Steve Rosenthal to let him know they found his tallis (prayer shawl) and teffilin (phylacteries) in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building. His parents gave them to him for his bar mitzvah.

The police called me that they found something of mine. I say, "What’d you find?"

"We found your prayer shawl and tefillin."

"How did you know it was mine? It's like a hundred Jewish people that lived in that building. They all got tallises and tefillin."

So he says, "Well, your name is on the pouch. S. Rosenthal, you can see it."

That's the prayer shawl and tefillin that my parents gave me at my bar mitzvah. So I've had that for almost 60 years.

Tefillin is something that the Jewish people strap on their left arm or right arm, if you're a lefty, and they put it on their heads and it makes you feel closer to God. The tallis — it's a prayer shawl.

The miracle that I was saved and to find my tallis and tefillin … that's some message. My family was Orthodox, my father was very Orthodox. I did go to a yeshiva as a kid. So I grew up knowing all of this, but I got away from it. I got away from it. I’m not turning religious ... I don’t think, tomorrow or anything, but I’m closer to God now, that’s for sure.

I go to services at the shul on Brickell — the Rok Family Shul. I’m the first one there at 7:30 a.m. I haven't found why or what my purpose is here. But it's got to be something. I will find it. It'll come to me one day. It'll just hit me.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Verónica Zaragovia
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