As workers continue to search the rubble of the collapsed condo building in Surfside, Florida, stories of the extraordinary lives of victims are starting to emerge, among them a Cuban exile who took part in the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion 60 years ago.
Juan Mora, one of more than 90 people whose deaths have now been officially recorded in the collapse of Champlain Towers South, was a member of Brigade 2506, which played a key role in the abortive effort to overthrow Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.
Mora was trained in guerrilla warfare in the Guatemalan jungle, then dispatched in April 1961 as part of a 1,400-strong paramilitary force whose mission was to land at night on the southern coast of Cuba and from there put an end to the Soviet-backed revolutionary government.
The cold war plan, conceived and paid for by the CIA under Dwight Eisenhower and set in train by his successor, John F Kennedy, went disastrously wrong. Kennedy withdrew air support from the invading paramilitary forces, who were overpowered by the Cuban army in just three humiliating days.
On Monday, the number of confirmed deaths in the building disaster rose to 94, of whom 83 had been identified, with next-of-kin of 80 having received notification. The recovery mission was continuing 24 hours a day. Overnight, however, first responders had to postpone operations because of the threat of lightning.
The pace of the painstaking work could also be affected by the discovery that two senior officials in the operation tested positive for Covid-19. Jose Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade county commission, and his chief of staff, Isidoro Lopez, were confirmed to have acquired the illness – even though both had been fully vaccinated.
In a press conference on Monday authorities said identifying victims was getting more difficult. Increasingly, they were having to rely on the forensic skills of the medical examiner’s office.
The mayor of Surfside, Charles Burkett, said officials had decided to increase security.
“It’s obvious that this has become much more than a collapsed building site,” he said. “It has become a holy site.”
Remarkably intact artifacts were still being pulled out of the debris, including unbroken wine bottles. Over the weekend, recovery workers found a business card belonging to an artist, and managed to retrieve in the same area of the pile several of the artist’s paintings that now will be given to family members.
The state launched on Monday a new website designed to make it easier for families to gain access to financial help and grief counseling.
Among the confirmed dead, Mora’s remarkable story was pieced together by the Associated Press as news emerged of the lives tragically lost when the 12-story condo building crashed down in the early hours of 24 June. The agency reported that the body of the Cuban exile, 80, was recovered along with those of his wife Ana and their son Juan Mora Jr, who had been visiting from Chicago. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Humberto Díaz Argüelles, a friend of Mora who was also present at the Bay of Pigs, told the AP they trained together in the Guatemalan jungle in 1960 and 1961. Mora was a radio operator.
Conditions were primitive and harsh but they didn’t mind, Argüelles said, because “we were so convinced about what we were doing to go free Cuba that nobody complained”.
They soon realized something had gone wrong when massive support promised by the CIA failed to materialize. Having run out of water, food and ammunition, they were captured by Cuban forces and taken to a military fort in Havana, where they spent 20 months before being returned to Florida in exchange for $53m.
Despite the failed invasion, Mora remained proud of his participation and was an active member of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. He went on to manage a business selling hurricane-proof windows and doors.