Researchers recover belongings from Surfside victims, but returning them is complicated

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SURFSIDE, Fla .– The collapsed building in Surfside is unrecognizable: what used to be a high rise home to many is now a gray pile of concrete and rebar mixed with the occasional flash of residents’ possessions.

As efforts to locate the bodies of victims of the deadly collapse come to an end, officials said on Tuesday, teams continue to recover valuable personal items from the wreckage of the building.

Onlookers watch from the road as excavators scrape layers of debris. Meanwhile, the researchers slowly dig and collect jewelry and money for guns and children’s toys from the site, which they have divided into a grid of nine segments. The question hanging over the entire effort, however, is how they will return these items to their rightful owners and what legal challenges this might create.

On Friday, an excavator digs the mound of debris at the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Miami-Dade County Police Sgt. Danny Murillo, who leads the property recovery efforts, said his team has developed a meticulous process for cataloging items and storing them with respect. The goal of the effort is recovery, he said; the creation of a system to return the items will occur later.

“Our main goal is to recover goods that have sentimental and religious value,” said Murillo. “This means making sure the process has been done with care and thoroughness, and hopefully eventually return the property to its rightful owners.”

From now on, all property recovered by the police is seized as evidence and taken to a temporary site. Members of Murillo’s team, dressed in protective plastic suits, place the objects in evidence bags which they label with as much detail as possible, including the numbers of the grids where the objects 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 with the key to the container.

Miami-Dade County Police officers store and catalog items found in the ruins of Champlain Towers South.Miami-Dade Police

Because many Jews lived in the building and some artifacts are religiously significant, Murillo and other law enforcement officials coordinate with Rabbi Yossi Harlig, a volunteer police chaplain.

“There are so many religious artifacts – Bibles, Shabbat candles, and other items these houses owned – that are very important to Jewish tradition,” Harlig said, noting that even damaged religious items must be buried with respect, rather than thrown away. “Just imagine the families who have lost everything – one of the things they would love to find and have with them as they continue from generation to generation are those objects that they might feel a deep connection with.”

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

“For families, it is very heartwarming to know that the chaplains are working closely with the police to ensure that we can report these items of religious importance and ensure that they are treated properly, be it a ring, a Bible, a candle or whatever, “he said.

It is still unclear how the families could recover their belongings later.

The police ensure that items of particular value are not seen by the public in order to avoid possible misrepresentation on the road, but they are not sure how they will handle the return of the goods to their rightful owners.

“This is 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 are now, and eventually we’ll move on to the next phase.”

One memorial includes a book belonging to a missing person from the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida.Saul Martinez / Getty Images

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

Miner, who also advises some of the families of the victims, said property disputes between residents may need to be resolved, as well as issues related to the estates of the deceased victims. Cash recovered and unclaimed items can ultimately be returned to the fund which is distributed among the victims.

Photos of a property might also be needed to make a claim, he said, and that type of evidence could have been lost during the collapse.

“Usually these kinds of issues are solved by showing some sort of proof of provenance,” he said. “You have to show a photo with your grandparents with them that includes, say, an award necklace.”

But this speculative phase is far away.

Meanwhile, Murillo and his team continue to dig, sometimes stopping when a personal object makes them think.

“Sometimes you see something that makes you think about it, like when you find a piece of art for a child,” he said. “We are all humans, we all have emotions, but at the end of the day, we have to accomplish this mission.”


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