For 20 minutes, Orlando Duran swallows his sorrow in the flower aisle at Publix.
Picking the perfect bouquet is paramount.
One by one, he inspects the posies for firm and sturdy stems, tight buds and bright, green leaves. Petals must be healthy, no discoloration or wilting.
“There it is, this is the one,” he says as he points at an arrangement of lilies, hydrangeas and carnations.
He takes a whiff: “My baby will love these.”
The weekly Publix run for fresh blooms is routine for Duran and his wife, Gina. Their 18-year-old daughter, Alexa, a freshman at Florida International University, was one of six people killed on March 15 when the FIU pedestrian bridge collapsed onto unsuspecting motorists.
“When I want to see my daughter, I have to go to the cemetery,” Orlando, 61, says.
“That’s our reality now.”
The four-mile car trip to the mausoleum at Vista Memorial Gardens in Miami Lakes is quiet.
With every passing traffic light, their daughter’s death becomes more real. When the couple roll past the main gate and onto the cemetery’s narrow, inner roads, it hits them.
Orlando places a pair of dark, reflective sunglasses over his swelling eyes; a more expressive Gina breaks out in a wail.
The thought of a mountain of concrete mangling Alexa’s Toyota 4Runner floods their minds.
Then come the flashbacks; the last phone call to her mom just seven minutes before the SUV was crushed while heading east on Tamiami Trail. The imagery of their daughter’s belongings being returned to them in a large paper bag.
“I try really hard to fight the thoughts,” Orlando says anxiously. He tosses aside last week’s batch of flowers, replacing them with the fresh blooms. After wiping dust from Alexa’s nameplate and photo frame, he places two fingers on his lips, and transfers over a kiss.
“Instead, I just talk to her. I tell her about my week and beg her to help me be strong,” he says.
Pinot Grigio and a few rounds of pool at a nearby billiards establishment usually works.
Drowning out the reality of their daughter’s death has been a tug-of-war for the fragile remaining family of three. Grief counseling hasn’t helped; nor has church. Socializing with friends brings more pain than healing.
“I know they mean well but they want to know what happened,” Orlando says. “I wish I could say what happened, but I don’t know what happened. This was not supposed to happen.”
But somehow, for a few moments on Friday nights, the sound of a black eight-ball thumping against the foot rail of the pool table and caroming into a pocket, as classic rock tunes play under dimmed lighting, brings relief.
“We’ve tried lots of things,” Gina, 55, says. “Pool is the only activity that has given our minds some rest, at least for a little bit.”
Sleeping in on Saturday mornings has become the norm at the Duran residence in Miami Lakes; every other day brings sleepless nights. The only thing that has remained the same is Alexa’s bedroom.
Her designer clothes and high-heel shoes remain in a pile in her closet, untouched; her book bag with textbooks and school ID are intact, along with the heaps of makeup on her dresser. Her last clothing purchase from Macy’s is still in its plastic bag.
“Time stops in that room,” Gina says, caressing the wooden door. “Everything in there is the same. But outside of this door? Nothing is the same.”
Her husband, who recently stopped working as an engineering consultant, says keeping the house clean and in order is hard – and cooking is even harder.
“There’s no energy here, there’s no desire,” he says, pointing at the untrimmed lawn, then at the pile of dirty dishes. “Just depression.”
For Gina, managing the family dry cleaning business has been a 12-hour-a-day escape. After Alexa, who worked with her mom as a record keeper, was killed, the finances were in shambles.
“But a few months ago I finally hired someone to replace my girl,” Gina says, patting 17-year-old Mathew Mendez on the shoulder with one hand.
In the corner of the store are reminders of their loss. Hung side by side within a section of the conveyor belt are Alexa’s prom and homecoming dresses, along with other gowns. Above those items is a piece of white tape, with the Sharpied words: “Alexa’s corner.”
“I knew it was hard for her to see that I’m ‘replacing’ her daughter, so I decided to get all of Alexa’s clothes and make a home for it,” Mathew says. “She’s still here and this is still her home, we just can’t see her.”
Gina chimes in: “He reminds me a lot of her and brings lots of laughter in the workplace.”
But it’s the absence of her daughter’s laughter that haunts Gina in the hallways of her home. She cannot bear it alone.
“Gina will not come home if nobody is home,” Orlando says. “She’ll go to the store, or to a family or friend’s home, she’ll stay at work late, but will not enter the home by herself. Our home used to be a house full of laughs, and now it’s empty and dark.”
Dina, Alexa’s 22-year-old older sister, occupies her time going to the gym and staying the night with her friends.
“Unlike Gina, Dina holds everything in,” Orlando says, pointing at a photo from Dina’s recent Florida State University graduation.
“So, after moving back home, not even three months after Alexa was killed, it’s been a really negative atmosphere for her. It wasn’t a happy homecoming, and now she’s living with two heartbroken parents. ”
Orlando, once a member of Ecuador’s military, anxiously taps his foot against the ground and clenches his fists.
“We’re all processing this differently. I’m the hard guy who puts on a front; I’ve mastered pretending everything is OK. I guess that’s my job. Right?”
Months after his daughter’s death, Orlando Duran still has many questions.
His first is “to God.”
“Why? Why my daughter?” he says. “That’s my first question. The rest of my questions are to everyone else and are never ending.”
Since the collapse, very little official information has been disclosed about what led to the tragedy. In October, a federal judge blocked the release of documents – sought by the Miami Herald in a lawsuit – that could have shed light on why busy Tamiami Trail, also known as Southwest Eighth Street, was not closed to traffic after the under-construction bridge developed cracks that became known to the builder, the designer and the university but were not disclosed to the public.
Recently, in an interim report, the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating, disclosed that it was likely a design flaw – not construction failures – that led to the cracking in a critical portion of the bridge. The findings lined up with conclusions reached months earlier by independent bridge engineering experts consulted by the Miami Herald.
Those three experts, consulted by the Herald, zeroed in on a critical juncture at the northern end of the 174-foot span as underdesigned for the load it had to bear.
The experts consulted by the Herald said the cracks were concerning enough that they should have prompted a work stoppage and a redirecting of traffic below the span pending a thorough evaluation, something that did not happen.
Instead, after a morning meeting called to discuss the cracks, a crew ascended the span to adjust the steel support rods that ran inside a diagonal strut – possibly an effort to close the cracks – the independent experts told the Herald. Traffic continued to flow below the span right up to the moment of the collapse, killing one crew member and crushing Alexa and other motorists waiting at a red light.
Lacking any formal, definitive conclusion as to cause – or acknowledgment of accountability – the Duran families and others whose loved ones died have been denied any sense of closure.
“That is our frustration, that they know, someone over there knows,” Orlando says. He proceeded to list his questions, barely breathing in between:
Why did they have to put a bridge without fully testing it outside its final destination?
Why did they not close the street while testing this bridge? Who decided that?
Why, if they knew there were imperfections – cracks – in the concrete, did someone not stop this?
Why did they allow the creation of this huge bridge when we only needed something to cross Eighth Street?
Why did they not bring my daughter out of the rubble as soon as this thing happened? Instead she lay there to rot for three days.
The answer that I want is: Who is going to be held accountable for my daughter’s death?
Adds the angry but stoic father: “It appears that they are trying to use time as a tool to dilute the severity of this case. The longer it takes, the less focus there will be from the people; they will lose momentum, people forget.”
He slams his fist on the dining table.
“It’s my right to know. I must know.”
That Thursday afternoon, an immense slab fell diagonally, almost precisely, onto the driver’s side of Alexa’s vehicle. For 72 hours, the teen was entombed under tons of concrete.
For all those hours, Gina watched from a third-floor garage, wrapped in a Red Cross blanket. It was the only place with a vantage point to see what was happening after police told her she had to leave the scene.
Orlando, who was on a business trip in London, found out about his daughter’s fate during a business meeting when reporters called him hours after the collapse.
But he made it just in time.
“I made it in time to see the rescue pull my daughter from under a bridge, crushed into a pancake. I had arrived in this country to see just that.”
It’s not just legal questions that gnaw at the Durans, but intimate ones.
What was she doing? What was her last conversation?
As of late December, the only person who would be able to answer that – FIU student Richard Humble, Alexa’s passenger, who somehow escaped the crush of concrete – “isn’t ready to talk,” his attorney says.
Meanwhile, the only hope the family had of recreating Alexa’s last moments – unlocking her iPhone – has diminished. After Apple told the family it couldn’t unlock the device, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office stepped in and gave it a shot.
“They said they couldn’t do it, that Alexa had too many security measures in place,” Gina says.
“My baby girl is gone. What I want, is that my daughter’s death not be in vain. Because Alexa was not an animal that died in the street,” Gina says.
“They haven’t released information. I need to get better, I need to get answers.”
As the family waits for updates on the investigation, the Durans are hoping to propose a state law.
“A law that says that you’re not allowed to test a bridge with traffic underneath,” Orlando says. “If a bridge collapses, it can be repaired, but life cannot be repaired.”
For months, the stream of text messages continued. Orlando would text his absent daughter.
First came the morning texts from Orlando to his “pumpkin.” Similar loving notes were sent at bedtime.
“Bye, my little girl, I will send you another message tomorrow hoping you might answer,” one text from her father read.
“I’m sitting here with mom drinking and thinking about you without saying a word. We love you and miss you,” read another.
But then they stopped.
“I stopped writing in my telephone,” Orlando said. “I used to write texts, expecting something. I was hoping for miracles, trying to connect.”
Instead, he talks to her burial vault.
Standing in front of Alexa’s bronze and gold nameplate, Orlando arranges the flowers in a small vase, wiping clean the photo of Alexa, who’s pictured in her black homecoming gown.
He closes his eyes, bows his head and makes the sign of a holy cross by touching his forehead, chest and shoulders.
“Pumpkin, just help us. Tell God to give us a hand, to help us accept that you’re no longer with us…. When it’s my time, you better come give me your hand because I’m gonna be really scared to walk to the other side.”
Across the hall is an elderly woman, inconsolable. The wailing woman approaches Orlando. For the next 10 minutes, the hyperventilating woman sobs as she tells him of her own loss – her husband of 60 years.
“I encourage you to focus on the good memories and on all the time you had him for,” he says as he holds her shoulder and calmly looks into her eyes.
The woman wipes her tears and thanks him for his kindness. Glancing at Alexa’s photo beside him, it dawns on her who was comforting her.
“Wait, aren’t you the father of the girl who got crushed by the bridge?” the woman asks in Spanish.
After a long pause, he nods. “Yes, that’s me.”
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