Victims of Miami garage collapse remembered as mission moves from rescue to recovery

They gathered under a tree and waited. And prayed. And waited some more.

But almost 48 hours after the partial collapse of a Miami-Dade College garage, there was still no official word about the fate of Robert Budhoo, a Tamarac electrician who had been working on the project. The massive 13-hour effort to rescue Budhoo had ended by about 1 a.m. Thursday, shifting to a mission of recovery.

Family members were not ready to let go.

“He is a fighter. If he is alive, he is going to stay alive, I know that much,” said Budhoo’s nephew, Ranjie Budhoo. “If he can find a way to stay alive, he will stay alive.”

Budhoo, 53, who worked for Stryker Electric, was among the casualties of a horrific midday accident at the college’s West Campus in Doral, that claimed the lives of three other workers, including Samuel Pérez, a devout anti-Castro activist whose legs were amputated some 12 hours after the accident, only for him to die a few hours after the excruciating extraction.

The family of victim Carlos Hurtado DeMendoza, 48 , a concrete setter, declined to comment. Jose Calderon, 60 , who also died, worked more than 30 years in construction and had two children, according to WSVN.

Members of Budhoo’s family — 17 adults and two children — were clustered under a tree near the accident site, frustrated at the slow pace of recovery.

In the hours after the collapse, they were kept about 200 feet away and spent much of the day pacing between a parking lot and a Hampton Inn, half a block away, which became a makeshift headquarters for worried loved ones.

Amid the agonizing wait for news, family members described Budhoo as a hard-working family man, a father of three children and a grandfather of five.

“In Christmas, we all get together as a family and we go from house to house,” said Ranjie Budho. “Thanksgiving, too, we are all together.”

Donovan Budhoo said his brother was working on the fifth floor of the west side of the building when it fell. He had worked with Stryker Electric for many years on similar projects but recently been laid off and went back home to Jamaica for awhile. He returned to South Florida and began working on this project in September.

Pérez, 53, a concrete truck manager for a project subcontractor, was born in New York City to a Cuban mother who moved the family back to the island when he was a small child. Although an American citizen by birth, he did not return to the United States to live until the mid-90s when he joined a brother, said his friend, Armando G. Aguilar.

“When I came to this country, I never thought that I would ever find a friendship like his that was equal to the ones I had in childhood,” Aguilar said. “It hurts to know how much he must have suffered.”

In Cuba, Pérez was a technician in the veterinary field. In Miami, he worked several odd jobs until he settled in the construction business. He leaves a son in Cuba, another who arrived in the United States recently, and his wife’s children who he raised. He and his wife, Migdalia López, have been together since 1996, according to Pérez’ Facebook page.

He lived a humble existence in a North Dade trailer park, where a neighbor said his only mode of transportation was a bicycle. On Thursday, the trailer was empty except for barking dogs; the window that was usually open remained shut.

“Without him, I don’t know what they are going to do,” said neighbor Roberta Navarro, 46, who said he appeared to be the only bread-winner among the three adults who lived there.

Pérez was an avid contributor to “Secretos Cuba” – a web forum where Cuban issues are discussed. Pérez showed a special writing talent and ability to express himself as a modest country man with a gift of gab, Aguilar said.

His avatar – a one-eyed man – got him the nickname “El Tuerto,” which means “the one with one eye.” He joked that he used the symbol because his view of things was single-minded, Aguilar said.

“With the way he expressed himself in such a special manner, you really would believe he had a level of education much higher than he had,” Aguilar said. “He was a very humble, honest and honorable man, an incredible person. I’m not just saying that because he has departed.”

He also managed a Facebook page called “Los Protestones,” which he used to voice his opposition to the Castro regime.

Back at the Doral site, Donovan Budhoo remembered his brother as someone who loved horse racing. Family members said officials told them an 800-ton crane took two hours to assemble, and it wasn’t until about 4:30 p.m. that it finally began lifting the rubble.

As he spoke, he tried to peer over the bushes in the parking lot to watch an 800-ton crane that took two hours to assemble to be used to remove the broken slabs of concrete. The process started around 4:30 p.m. as one lowered a black cable slowly into the rubble. An official told the family that the biggest constraint now was daylight, because they couldn’t continue with the recovery operation after dark. Lighting the scene would cast shadows on the rubble, complicating the removal process.

He shook his head and wiped his eyes. “I know I’m going to see him again.”

As the sun set, another brother, Steven Budhoo, leaned up against the side a neighboring storage facility.

“The dog IDed the place where the body is, so that’s where they put the crane,’’ Steve said. “They’re moving at a very slow pace."

Tired and weary, he vowed not to give up all hope until they found the body.

“I watched in Haiti [on TV] and days upon days, they were still finding people alive.”

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