‘Try to be strong.’ What Joe Biden told 12-year-old Miami girl missing her father in condo collapse


A young girl discovered keeping a lone vigil for her missing father and uncle amid the devastation of the condo collapse in Florida met Joe Biden – who told her: ‘Try to be strong.’

Elisheva Cohen, 12, was among relatives of those missing and dead in the disaster who were consoled by the President during his emotional day-long visit to the scene with the First Lady.

The schoolgirl had been found by Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett sitting on a chair all alone reading psalms in a scene that he said ‘broke my heart’ four days after the Champlain Towers South condo catastrophe.

Mayor Burkett told Dailymail.com: ‘Today she met the President. He was talking about his family and the tragedy in his life. He specifically said to Elisheva, ”Try to be strong.”’

Elisheva Cohen, 12, is missing her father and uncle who are lost in the rubble at the Champlain condo collapse site. Joe Biden consoled Elisheva during his emotional day-long visit to the scene

'Biden was talking about his family and the tragedy in his life. He specifically said to Elisheva, ''try to be strong'',' Mayor Charles Burkett told DailyMail.com. Biden and Elisheva posed for a photo during Thursday's visit

‘Biden was talking about his family and the tragedy in his life. He specifically said to Elisheva, ”try to be strong”,’ Mayor Charles Burkett told DailyMail.com. Biden and Elisheva posed for a photo during Thursday’s visit 

Search and rescue personnel are seen working atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building, where scores of people remain missing more than a week after it partially collapsed

Search and rescue personnel are seen working atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building, where scores of people remain missing more than a week after it partially collapsed

‘She is a remarkable little girl, beautiful, sweet, kind and loving. An all-round amazing human being – all at 12 years old,’ the mayor said. 

‘This should not be happening to her and it breaks all of our hearts to have her father missing in the collapse and separated from her, her brother and their family.’

Elisheva's doctor father Brad Cohen (pictured), 51, is missing along with his psychiatrist brother Gary, 58

Elisheva’s doctor father Brad Cohen (pictured), 51, is missing along with his psychiatrist brother Gary, 58

Elisheva’s physician father Brad Cohen, 51, is missing along with his psychiatrist brother Gary, 58. The Orthodox Jewish siblings were in Brad’s apartment in the condo complex when it collapsed.

Mayor Burkett said when first revealing Elisheva’s heartbreaking story: ‘When I came across her she was sitting in a chair by herself with nobody around her, looking at her phone.

‘And I knelt down and I asked her, ”So what are you doing? Are you OK?” And What she was telling me… she was reading a Jewish prayer to herself, sitting at the site where one of her parents presumably is. That should never happen. It’s horrific.

‘And that broke my heart. That really brought things home for me.’

He continued: ‘She wasn’t crying. She was just lost, she didn’t know what to do, what to say, who to talk to.’

The mayor said he had seen Elisheva before at the scene, with her mother Soraya and was going to try to find her again.

He added at the time: ‘I’m going to tell her she needs to come to me for anything she needs, because that’s the face… of this disaster right here – that little girl’.

Mayor Burkett said he came across Elisheva sitting in a chair by herself looking at her phone reading a Jewish prayer to herself. 'She wasn't crying. She was just lost, she didn't know what to do, what to say, who to talk to,' he said. Mayor Burkett and Elisheva are pictured together

Mayor Burkett said he came across Elisheva sitting in a chair by herself looking at her phone reading a Jewish prayer to herself. ‘She wasn’t crying. She was just lost, she didn’t know what to do, what to say, who to talk to,’ he said. Mayor Burkett and Elisheva are pictured together 

Elisheva's mother Soriya Cohen is seen at the disaster site holding a picture of her missing husband, Brad. Soriya said, 'Brad was extremely tough, and that's why I thought at the beginning he did survive. It knew that if anybody could survive it's him… but now I no longer think there's any chance he's alive'

Elisheva’s mother Soriya Cohen is seen at the disaster site holding a picture of her missing husband, Brad. Soriya said, ‘Brad was extremely tough, and that’s why I thought at the beginning he did survive. It knew that if anybody could survive it’s him… but now I no longer think there’s any chance he’s alive’

Elisheva’s mother lives in a nearby apartment building. Mayor Burkett said: ‘She lives with her mother, and her father and her uncle were in the building when it went down.

‘She just happened to be staying that night with her mother. Normally she goes back and forth.’

Elisheva’s mom Soraya told People four days after the collapse: ‘I feel like it’s a surreal nightmare and I’m going to wake up and it’s over. Especially when I sit there watching the rescue, people just digging and smelling the dust. It seems like something out of the Twilight Zone. It doesn’t seem real.

‘Brad was extremely tough, and that’s why I thought at the beginning he did survive. It knew that if anybody could survive it’s him… but now I no longer think there’s any chance he’s alive. The thought that he’s not here anymore… it’s cataclysmic. It’s just such a giant change in your life with no warning.’

She said Dr. Cohen was an orthopedic surgeon and specialized in sports medicine. He founded Aventura Orthopedics and Sports Medicine and Soraya said he also worked in a local emergency room as an on-call trauma surgeon.

She told the magazine that he ‘cared a lot about people. He’s a very, very charitable person and giving a lot of money to charities on a regular basis. He just knocked himself out, always, for other people.’

Gary Cohen traveled down to south Florida from his Alabama home to visit his elderly father in Boynton Beach, before fatefully deciding to spend time with Brad at his brother’s 11th floor apartment. He was a psychiatrist at the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Soraya was staying at a different apartment building in Miami Beach with Elisheva on the night of the collapse. She last spoke to her husband between 10pm and 11pm Wednesday – hours before the early morning tragedy.

She told the Miami Herald: ‘We’ve been married for 21 years. We’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s a family.’

Elisheva has a brother Avi, 19, who it is understood was in Israel at the time of the tragedy but flew back to the United States when he received news of the tragedy.

Her uncle Gary Cohen (pictured) traveled down to south Florida from his Alabama home to visit his elderly father in Boynton Beach, before fatefully deciding to spend time with Brad at his brother's 11th floor apartment. He was a psychiatrist at the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Her uncle Gary Cohen (pictured) traveled down to south Florida from his Alabama home to visit his elderly father in Boynton Beach, before fatefully deciding to spend time with Brad at his brother’s 11th floor apartment. He was a psychiatrist at the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Elisheva uncle Dr. Gary Cohen is seen with his wife Mindy Cohen with son Jared and his fiance Stephanie in May of 2020. The Alabama doctor is among the 145 people missing

Elisheva uncle Dr. Gary Cohen is seen with his wife Mindy Cohen with son Jared and his fiance Stephanie in May of 2020. The Alabama doctor is among the 145 people missing

Brad and Gary grew up in Dix Hills, New York, with father Morton and mother Debra, 84, who now lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Gary eventually relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, with wife Mindy. Brad chose south Florida and was an active member of synagogues in Surfside.

According to Chabad.org, the brothers had decided to spend time together when the devastating collapse happened. Both were committed continued learning within Judaism.

Rabbi Yossi Friedman, program director of Chabad, Alabama, said: ‘Gary was always coming over to me and sharing what he had learned online or had read. With a unique persistence, he would always probe, ask, debate and discover.

‘He was not shy about sharing his understanding, but he was always willing to listen to others and concede to them when he thought they were right.’ 

Elisheva’s chat with Biden came as roughly 200 family members of victims met the President for nearly two-and-a-half hours behind closed doors.

Afterwards the Biden said: ‘So many of them are suffering. You know, they had basic heart wrenching questions.

‘Will I be able to recover in the body of my son or daughter, my husband, my cousin, my mom and dad. How can I close without being able to bury them. If I don’t get the body, what do I do…

‘They know that as the days go by diminish slightly.’

He added: ‘I spoke with one woman who just lost her husband and her little baby boy and she didn’t know what to do. And to watch them (the families), they’re praying, they’re pleading, ‘God , let there be a miracle’.

‘Jill and I wanted them to know that we’re with them, the country’s with them.’

He said the conversations brought back ‘ so many, so many memories’.

A car crash in 1972 killed Biden’s wife Neilia and his infant daughter Naomi. His sons Beau and Hunter were not injured in the accident.

President Joe Biden and Jill Biden capped their day in Miami with an unscheduled stop at a Memorial Wall

President Joe Biden and Jill Biden capped their day in Miami with an unscheduled stop at a Memorial Wall

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit a memorial put in place for the victims of the building collapse in Surfside

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit a memorial put in place for the victims of the building collapse in Surfside

Most of the board members of the condominium that collapsed last week resigned in 2019, with the president of the board slamming inaction and bickering over an engineers report calling for urgent repairs

Most of the board members of the condominium that collapsed last week resigned in 2019, with the president of the board slamming inaction and bickering over an engineers report calling for urgent repairs

Biden hugs Incident Commander Mayor Daniella Levine Cava as he and first lady Jill Biden arrive to visit the memorial wall

Biden hugs Incident Commander Mayor Daniella Levine Cava as he and first lady Jill Biden arrive to visit the memorial wall

‘It’s bad enough to lose somebody. But the hard part, the really hard part, is to jot know if somebody survived,’ he said. ‘When the accident took my wife, my family, the hardest part was, were my boys going to get out, are they going to make it.’

Biden finished he emotion-charged visit to the catastrophe by walking along the Surfside Wall of Hope & Memorial, honoring the currently 18 confirmed dead and 145 missing.

With First Lady Jill by his side, the President made the unscheduled stop late in the day. They couple bent down several times to examine individual mementos on the wall, festooned with pictures of the heart breaking missing.

At one point the deeply religious leader gripped a remembrance that resembled a rosary. He also appeared to wipe away a tear as he examined the photos and messages. The First Lady, wearing a black dress, laid a bouquet of white flowers.

Of last Thursday morning’s devastation to the 12-story beachfront condo building, President Biden said: ‘I don’t think there is at this point any definitive judgment as to why it collapsed, and what can be done to prevent it from happening.’

Search and rescue work resumed following the Biden visit, after it was halted for 16 hours when expert teams voiced new concerns that the remaining structure could topple.

Operations on the site – already hit by thunderstorms – could be further hampered by a tropical storm that may affect south Florida early next week. 



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