Life

The Horror of Surfside

A partially collapsed building on a beach.
Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, on Tuesday. Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

Everyone knows, or should know, how it is: Some of us are going to die today, and some of us are not. Most likely, though, any particular day is not going to be the day any particular one of us dies, and so we usually put the whole terrible thing out of mind.

The Surfside building collapse has made it very hard to do that. Afterward—afterward!—reporters and other observers came up with lots of potential reasons that the building could have fallen down: slowly sinking ground, deferred maintenance of crumbling concrete, built-in drainage problems. But none of those reasons were salient or obvious to the people who settled into their apartments in Champlain Towers South that Wednesday night, neither to the ones who are alive and accounted for today nor to the ones who are not. You wouldn’t go to bed if you knew.

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Eight years ago next week, in the middle of the night, a runaway train full of crude oil derailed and detonated in the center of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Québec. Forty-seven people were killed, and the downtown was destroyed. No one had any useful knowledge that led them to be in or out of the blast site before it happened.

Twelve years ago last week, I rode from Silver Spring, Maryland, to Union Station on the D.C. Metro Red Line to run an errand and get a haircut. The rest of my family was out of town, so there was no reason for me to run the errand at any particular time, and I procrastinated until late afternoon. On a TV at the hair salon, I saw a live newscast of Metro train wreckage: one inbound Red Line train had rear-ended another, killing eight people. If I’d wasted another 10 minutes, I’d have been on one of the trains.

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The aftermath of 9/11 was full of stories of near misses, or of the bleak opposites of near misses: people who’d stayed home, people who’d gone to work early—people who’d made some minor and meaningless change to their daily routine that turned out to have been a matter of life or death. Even the whole insistence on talking about how nice the weather was that morning amounted to a complaint about the arbitrariness of it, the lack (outside the president’s security briefing) of a suitable, heedable omen.

The easy way to get distance from a horrible event is to find the reason it happened to someone else instead of you, even if the reason is wishful or imaginary. Mark Wahlberg changed his flight out of Boston away from one of the planes that got hijacked, then spun out a fantasy about how he would have fought the hijackers had he been there. When the Boeing 737 Max killed two separate loads of passengers, William Langewiesche explained to the readers of the Atlantic that they had been flying on foreign airlines whose pilots lacked the proper airmanship to handle a self-crashing plane.

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Under the pressure of the COVID pandemic, this impulse drove Americans into a sectarian frenzy. The disease was avoidable, with proper precautions and distance, if you weren’t an essential worker; the disease was a judgment on crowded urbanites who were too afraid of it; it was a judgment on reckless exurbanites who weren’t afraid enough of it; it was an exaggeration; it was an infringement on liberty; it was a hoax.

And then, after more than a year of sustained competing survivors’ fantasies and shibboleths, Americans began returning to life in public again, and the gun slaughter picked up where it had left off. Once again people were dying because they went to work, or to the grocery store, or to a birthday party. Once again the events were called “unimaginable,” even though of course they had happened before.

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But where COVID is an ambient fear and the massacres are an ambient malevolence, the building just fell down without preface, in the bland view of a security camera. Not even all of the building: The two lingering images were of the rubble pile—the familiarly unrecognizable shambles, a miniature Ground Zero—and of the ordinary bunk bed still standing in a half-intact bedroom, on the top floor. A man who’d walked out of his own apartment told the media the apartment numbers on his hall that were simply gone, along with their occupants. The dividing line was that sharp, and that arbitrary, and that absolute.

To understand more about the Surfside building collapse and how it’s affecting the community, listen to this episode of What Next.

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