Firefighters declared the end of their search for bodies at the site of a collapsed Florida condo building on Friday, however the remains of 54-year-old Estelle Hedaya are yet to be identified, leaving her family and friends without closure.
The June 24 collapse at the oceanside Champlain Towers South killed 97 people — if found, Hedaya would bring the death toll to 98.
Leah Sutton, who knew Hedaya since birth and considered herself a second mother to her, is worried that she will be forgotten.
“They seem to be packing up and congratulating everyone on a job well done. And yes, they deserve all the accolades, but after they find Estelle.”
Hedaya’s best friend in the building, lawyer and fellow New Yorker Linda March, was finally identified Wednesday night even though her body was found more than two weeks ago.
Hedaya’s younger brother Ikey has given DNA samples and visited the site twice to see the search efforts for himself.
“As we enter month two alone, without any other families, we feel helpless,” he said on Friday.
He said he gets frequent updates from the medical examiner’s office.
“The tough part is seeing my parents like this, day after day,” he told CNN. “I just want my sister to be at peace and get the honor and respect she deserves.”
“I firmly believe God helped her get to her best point in life and then decided best for her to go out on top,” he said.
“My one regret is that I never told her how much I respected her, and how much I admired how she kept improving no matter what life was throwing at her,” Ikey told the outlet. “I just never thought there’d be a day I’d be here, and she wouldn’t.”
Ikey said that he was remaining pretty calm, but realized that he may now just be numb to the stress — under Jewish law, the family cannot hold a funeral for Hedaya or sit the traditional shiva mourning period for her.
At first, Ikey said he was hesitant to visit the site’s twisted steel and concrete chunks, wondering about his sister’s final moments.
Her balcony and living room were still eerily intact. It was too much, and the 47-year-old real estate tax accountant from Brooklyn quickly turned around.
“I can’t believe Estelle is in there somewhere, and I didn’t want to think about it,” he told the Associated Press.
But at the urging of a childhood best friend, now a rabbi, they returned to the site once more to pray in recent days.
This time, the rubble was largely gone and the collapse site mostly swept flat. That’s the image he’ll hold onto.
It is a lot to contemplate for this deeply religious man, firmly rooted in his Jewish faith. The waiting is torture, and although he is heartbroken, he is not hopeless.
“I know God took care of her,” he said.