Miami-Dade County has identified the final known victim of the Surfside condominium collapse, capping more than a month of recovering bodies and remains of the missing from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South complex.
Estelle Hedaya, 54, lived on the sixth floor of the 12-story condominium complex, and was the last of 98 people killed by the collapse who remained officially unidentified. Miami-Dade police identified her as a Surfside collapse victim Monday afternoon after Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference that the 98th Surfside victim had been identified.
“Together, I pray we can begin the long process of healing,” Levine Cava told reporters at the county’s Emergency Operations center in Doral.
An executive with a jewelry-sales company, Hedaya was described by friends and family as fun, optimistic and committed to her Jewish faith.
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Kerie Stone, a friend from their days in New York two decades ago, recalled Hedaya’s confidence when they both were recovering from similar medical procedures. Hedaya was soon back at work and the gym, leaving Stone thankful for her reunion with “someone you never wanted to lose again.”
Hedaya’s optimism came through in her “Follow the Toes” lifestyle blog, which focused on her solo getaways, spa days and shopping — as well as essays on personal challenges.
“Positivity does not come easy. This is especially true during challenging times,” Hedaya wrote in an April 28, 2020, post about isolation at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I have seen several friends cope with immense pain by drawing from their faith and they have inspired me.”
While county authorities were confident Hedaya was killed in the collapse, she remained officially missing as the search operation ended at the collapse site at 8777 Collins Ave.
The search continued at a secured lot by Miami International Airport, where investigators sifted through tons of debris relocated by truck from Surfside. As the weeks passed, police said identifying remains became more difficult. Of the 98 dead, 97 were found in the debris of Champlain Towers; the first known victim died at a hospital on June 24 from injuries sustained in the collapse.
Hedaya was the final name on the police department’s list of missing persons believed to be in Champlain Towers when it fell shortly after 1 a.m. on June 24. Freddy Ramirez, the county’s police director, said police recovered Hedaya’s remains on July 20, finding them amid the relocated rubble. Ramirez said medical examiners worked through Monday identifying the remains as Hedaya.
After Hedaya’s identification, Ramirez said investigators have no more missing-person cases to pursue from the collapse, but that the search for remains continues at the debris site.
“We’re still working the evidence piles,” he said, adding the agency wasn’t “ruling anything out” regarding what’s left to find from the collapse debris. “We’ll continue until we deem we’ve done everything we can.”
Miami-Dade police maintain two databases cataloging personal items found from the debris — one from rubble taken from the collapsed Champlain South structure, the other rubble from the tower that remained standing but was demolished for safety reasons on July 4. The goal is to return the items to surviving residents and the families of the dead.
On Monday, Linda Hedaya, Estelle’s mother, said she was left “overwhelmed and distraught” after her daughter’s identification ended the search for the missing in Surfside.
“We appreciate everything that everyone has done,” Linda Hedaya said. “People have been as good and kind as they could be.”
The family hopes for a funeral Tuesday, but her daughter’s remains were still in the custody of the county Medical Examiner’s Office Monday afternoon. After the funeral, the family will begin the seven-day process of shiva, or Jewish ritual mourning.
“We’re just waiting for her to come home,” Linda Hedaya said.