By Leonard Pitts
Nearly two weeks later, it has become a tragedy in slow motion.
The search for why it happened seems to piddle forward at a crawl. The hope of finding survivors is frozen in place. Even the rise of the death toll feels laggard, its upward creep sluggish yet terribly inexorable. At this writing, 32 people have been confirmed dead, but there are over a hundred more yet to be accounted for. Meantime, people in nearby condos must ascend to their homes wondering if they are safe, or if the same unknown thing that caused their neighbor’s building to fall might also happen to them.
There is, as yet, nothing definitive to say about any of this. Authorities are pleading for patience. Nearly two weeks after part of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside sheared off in the middle of the night, the search for answers is not moving nearly fast enough to keep pace with the all-too-human need to know.
The slow pace of the tragedy now stands in stark contrast to the awful abruptness with which it began. One-twenty-three a.m. Maybe a few people up watching late-night television. Maybe a few more making nocturnal kitchen raids. But at that hour, most people surely asleep, heads on pillows, resting for tomorrow’s labors. And then, a thunderous bang, the tower disintegrating into a pile of concrete and twisted metal. People’s homes are ripped open in a cutaway view, bedding and appliances exposed, air conditioning units left dangling like bangles from a chain.
One grieves the loss, the pain, the destruction. But it is still the abruptness — the suddenness — that appalls.
It is a thief, that suddenness, stealing peace of mind, the illusion of things in order, events under control. Life is vicissitude, yes, of course. Even a child knows this. With a hurricane, though, there are at least a few days to board up your windows. With a cancer, there is at least a chance to make your peace.
But what about when the floor just drops away beneath you? At 1:22, you’re asleep in your bed as on so many nights. At 1:24, you’re lying broken in a pile of ruins.
More to the point, how to process that suddenness if you are watching as a loved one or even just a random human being? How to make sense of something so objectively senseless, something that tests faith, denies hope and mocks the very notion of comprehension?
It’s a challenge for which words are useless. Yet, words are all we have.
Maybe, however, it is not the worst thing in the world sometimes to be humbled, to lose the illusion of order and certainty. Perhaps in stealing peace of mind, that thief, suddenness, imparts something ultimately more valuable. Meaning that it requires one to recalibrate one’s perspective on what is and is not truly important. Surely that’s a valuable lesson for navigating the irritations that chase us from day to day. The singer and actor Cher is fond of putting it as follows: “If it doesn’t matter in five years, it doesn’t matter.”
After 1:23, what do you suppose mattered to the people trapped in the rubble? Or to those anxiously awaiting word? Whatever it was, you can be certain it wasn’t the same as what mattered — or seemed to — at 1:22. And while the suddenness of what the next minute brought is, indeed, appalling, it is also instructive, offering a hard and painful reminder to love your loved ones while you can and take nothing in this life for granted.
Every morning is a miracle.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at [email protected]