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Crews work in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building at the site of the partially collapsed condo building in Surfside, Fla. on July 13, 2021. Firefighters officially ended their search for bodies on July 23.Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press

The first victim was found in the heap of wreckage just hours after the sudden collapse of a 13-story oceanside condo building. The second body was pulled out a short while later. One after the next, 97 in all, they were located over the past month amid the millions of pounds of mangled steel and concrete.

But on Day 30, the authorities were still searching for one final victim.

For weeks, Linda Hedaya has anxiously awaited news of her firstborn daughter, Estelle Hedaya, 54, who had moved from New York to Florida to begin a new chapter and who is believed to be the 98th victim. She has waited as the list of those killed got longer and longer by the day. She has waited as her son traveled to Florida to give DNA that might help identify his older sister, and as funerals were held for the dozens of people who lived in the Champlain Towers South building.

And she has waited as the site was finally cleared, leaving just a bare concrete foundation.

Firefighters end search and rescue at Miami condo building collapse

“Torture is the only word I can think of to describe what our lives have been like since this happened,” Hedaya, 74, said Friday. “This has been heartbreaking and heart-wrenching.”

As the search for bodies at the collapse site was officially declared over Friday, Estelle Hedaya is the last believed – and still unaccounted for – casualty.

For nearly a month, workers scaled and chipped away at the mountain of debris created by the partial collapse of the building on June 24. Within two weeks, the frantic search for survivors shifted to the task of removing bodies or remains.

Challenges complicated the search from the beginning. First, there was the sheer scale of the destruction, with the contents of condos and the collapsed floors amounting to millions of tons of debris. Already tedious and painstaking, the work was then threatened by fires, thigh-high groundwater, summer storms and Florida’s relentless heat, which deteriorated the remains and made identification particularly difficult.

The search for the final remains – believed to be Estelle Hedaya’s – would be done off-site, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County, which includes Surfside, said in a statement this week. The rubble was separated into two piles, with pieces deemed key evidence stored in a locked warehouse, and everything else at an outdoor site near Miami International Airport.

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