After FIU bridge fell, Alexa Duran's family is on a quest to preserve her memory
Tucked away inside a white, weathered dresser rests a brown, crumpled paper bag.
Inside that bag are a few ounces of what’s left of the dead teen — two wrinkled dollar bills, a quarter, a dusty hair tie, a black leather choker, a long pendant necklace, a silver ring, a sorority keychain, a Sunpass transponder and a driver’s license.
“This is what they handed to me,” whispered Gina Duran, angry tears dribbling down her cheek.
The mourning mother held the chalky items up into the light. Her voice cracked.
“They handed me my daughter in a freaking paper bag.”
Alexa Duran, 18, was one of six people crushed to death on March 15 when the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed onto ongoing traffic. The FIU freshman would have turned 19 last week.
The mountain of concrete crushed cars, even the strongest of pickup trucks, at 1:47 p.m. that day. Alexa, who was driving her father’s Toyota 4Runner, was going east on Tamiami Trail and was on her way to drop off a dear friend at home.
In an instant, the bridge, which was still under construction, caved, mangling the SUV. Footage shows a yellow school bus halting just moments before the disaster. Dozens climbed out of their cars and dashed toward the rubble as dust and crumbled concrete drifted through the air.
An immense slab fell diagonally, almost precisely, onto the driver’s side of Alexa’s vehicle. The passenger, FIU student Richard Humble, was spared.
“It was as if God chose my daughter that day,” Gina said.
As the public waits for answers on what happened — at the same time government agencies are stanching the flow of vital information — the Duran family is busy fighting to preserve her memory with one other salvaged possession: Alexa’s unscathed iPhone.
“My daughter’s body came back as flat and thin as a cracker but her iPhone survived without a single scratch,” Gina Duran said.
The family’s quest to live out their daughter’s last days and find closure in the wake of the teen’s death hasn’t come without major obstacles — specifically Alexa’s password, which was her thumbprint.
As a backup, Alexa armed her cell with a six-digit pin code. About a dozen friends and family members have tried to guess it and had no success.
As a last resort, relatives have attempted to figure out her Apple ID password.
Could it be her dog’s name, Lola? No.
Her favorite food? No.
How about her birthday or boy crush? No.
After the maximum number of failed attempts, the phone locked itself.
Her older sister, Dina, said, “Alexa set the password to have the maximum number of characters allowed,” making it that much harder to crack.
To no avail, the grieving family even tried local independent technology companies. They could not hack into it.
Apple requires a court order, a death certificate and proof of them being trustee of Alexa’s estate — an exhausting process the Duran family is currently navigating.
Apple has no way to unlock phones because it doesn’t store pass codes, thumbprint or face recognition data, according to the company. However, with a court order, it can access whatever the user uploaded to his or her iCloud.
“They said they would call me back but they haven’t,” Gina Duran said.
“As a teen, you don’t tell your parents every single little thing,” Gina said, holding the iPhone 6. “Opening this phone will give me a glimpse into my baby’s last moments. What was she thinking? What was her last selfie? Anything. Anything.”
Until it can be accessed, the phone rests in a box under the dead teen’s pillow. Her parents are afraid that further fiddling with it will erase the data.
“I can’t lose it. I can’t lose what’s in there, just in case one day we can get it to open,” Gina Duran said, fluffing her teen’s white pillowcase.
“This is the only place I know it will be safe.”
Since his daughter’s death, Orlando Duran can only cope by sending his “pumpkin” text messages. Almost every day, the teen’s most trusted “secret-keeper” sends her a brief note.
Three days after the collapse, Alexa’s body was finally identified and she was officially pronounced to be dead.
“Bye, my little girl, I will send you another message tomorrow hoping you might answer,” one text from her father read.
“I’m sitting here with mom drinking and thinking about you without saying a word. We love you and miss you,” read another.
He squeezed his phone tightly and polished the glowing screen with his shirt cuff.
"Every time I write a message I die a little. "
Since the collapse, more details — though not many — have surfaced.
Earlier this month, The Miami Herald revealed that a key concrete support truss in the doomed bridge developed worrisome cracks 10 days before the structure was lifted into place over Southwest Eighth Street.
The university unintentionally released photos and documents detailing the cracks in response to a records request by the Herald. The records show that FIU's construction and engineering team discovered the potentially problematic cracks in the bridge earlier than officials had previously acknowledged.
Since the collapse, multiple lawsuits have been filed against the construction firm, Munilla Construction Management, Figg Bridge Engineers and others involved in the project.
As of yet, none of the suits name FIU or the Florida Department of Transportation because of a law giving them “sovereign immunity” limiting their liability. Lawyers must also give them 180 days notice before filing a suit.
“Six months and a day later, we sue them,” said the family’s attorney, Alan Goldfarb.
Questions about Alexa continue to haunt them, the family says. What was she doing? What was her last conversation?
Richard, who was in the vehicle with Duran, told the Herald he was too distraught to discuss any details about that day.
He briefly chatted with a reporter Friday — the day Alexa would have turned 19. Last minute, he showed up weeping at a church Mass honoring the dead teen. During the service, she was remembered as “giving, always funny, always laughing — the life of the party.”
Alexa was a cheerleader and dancer during her time at Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy High School. This was her first year at FIU, where she was studying political science and in the newest pledge class for the Alpha Xi Delta sorority.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Richard walked up to the Durans' pew and shook the hands of Alexa's parents. There was no conversation during the brief encounter.
“I'm still really torn up about this, but I had to come. It’s bigger than me,” he told the Herald later. “She was the sweetest girl in the world.”
Stuart Grossman, Richard's lawyer, has said the young man is so traumatized that he quit school. In an email to the Herald, Grossman said Alexa’s “bodily contents were squeezed onto him.”
“Upon the impact of the collapsed bridge, Mr. Humble was physically struck by portions of the vehicle and bridge, as well as the injured body of the driver of his vehicle,” Richard's lawsuit says. “He suffered bodily injuries and witnessed the driver of his vehicle die from the impact of the collapsed bridge.”
“I understand the pain and shock Richard must be in, but he’s really the only person who can give us closure,” the girl’s father, Orlando Duran said. “We haven’t spoken since it all happened, and all he would say is ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ ”
The Duran family says Richard and Alexa were courting for a few months before her death.
“She really liked him. She bought so much clothes. She wanted to dress up for him,” Gina Duran said, holding up garments that still bore their store tags. “They would talk in the car in the driveway late at night as we peeked through the blinds.”
The day before the collapse, Alexa’s sister accompanied her to take Richard some soup because he was sick. After that, the teen took off to the Keys with some girlfriends and returned in the middle of the night.
“When I woke up to go to work, I knocked on her door. Like always, she called me over to the bed. We cuddled for about 10 minutes and then I had to go,” Gina Duran said. “That was the last time I saw her.”
Gina begged her daughter not to go to school that day because she needed help at the family business, a dry cleaners in Miami Lakes that Alexa helped run.
“She told me ‘No, Mami. I have an appointment with the guidance counselor. I have to go,’ ” Duran said. “I told her to hurry back.”
The mother spoke to her daughter about seven minutes before the bridge fell.
“Then all the reports said she was taking Richard to a doctor’s appointment,” she said. “I just want to know about my baby’s last day on earth.”
What was she talking about when the bridge collapsed? Was she happy, mad, sad? Was she in love? What song was on the radio?
Only Richard knows.
Carefully yet lovingly, Gina Duran folded Alexa’s unwashed clothes.
“I can’t let her smell get away,” she said, holding her pair of Adidas sweatpants. She placed her nose on the seams and strongly inhaled. “This is all I have left."
Except for the folded laundry, the teen’s room remains untouched.
The dogs aren’t allowed inside. If you come in, you must close the door behind you quickly so that the teen’s scent won’t escape.
On her bed lay the towels she used that morning — two red ones and a purple one.
Her bed remains undone. Shoes piled up in her open closet. Makeup bags on her dresser. Beside her white pillows is a green stuffed alligator.
“The only thing I won’t do is read her diaries,” Gina said. She opened one up and riffled through the pages.
One entry started with “Dear universe.”
Gina closed her eyes and slammed the book closed: “I can’t do it.” She shoved it back in the drawer.
In a small, magenta, hand-crafted box are strands of Alexa’s long black hair.
“I took them off her brush, bed, shower, bedroom floor, anywhere,” Gina said. One tear broke free, the rest followed in an unbroken stream.
“I loved her hair. It was so thick and pretty.”
In an attempt to collect the troves of memories Alexa left behind, the family has altered her garments and wears them, as well as her jewelry and sunglasses.
The family’s dry cleaning business, Unicorn Cleaners bordering Miami Lakes, isn’t the same.
Their bubbly teen isn’t at the counter greeting customers or in the back pressing shirts. There's no sporadic dancing or passionate singing as music blasts from an old boom box, wedged between iron hangers.
The once-brisk pace of the operation is lacking. A mini memorial was formed in the lobby.
Her death caused the business to struggle. Her position, though key, remains open. Alexa, who worked about 25 hours a week, was meticulously organized and managed the shop's finances.
“It’s hard to fill her shoes. It hurts me to have to replace my daughter,” Gina said. "Sometimes I catch myself calling out her name and stopping midway because she's not here."
Because of her absence, Orlando, an IT specialist who travels often, has had to help out more than usual. After his work, he can be seen steaming and rubbing out stains as he daydreams about his “little girl.”
“We’ve owned the business since Alexa was three-and-a-half,” he said. “She started working here when she was a toddler, taking out stains with a little toothbrush. I remember taking her for a ride in the laundry bins.”
Orlando was on a business trip in England when he got the news his daughter may have been one of the victims. Mom was at the shop. He caught a flight back to Miami and was escorted by police to the bridge site just in time to see his daughter pulled out from the wreckage.
"The last time I saw her she was at that counter. She kissed me goodbye,” he said, pointing toward the cash register. “Never would I have thought it would be the last time.”
Alexa’s clothing is hung across the business. At the entrance is a short white dress. By the cashier is her long black graduation gown.
“She used to live here; this was like her closet. I’m keeping it that way,” her mother said.
She closed her eyes. Memories of the flat SUV being extracted from the ruins flood her mind. The blinking red dot on the “Find My Friends" app indicated her daughter was indeed under the bridge as she watched from the third-floor garage.
To keep busy, she snapped out of it and rushed to process more orders. As she ironed, she had visions of FIU one day naming a building after her.
"That's my only hope. That way nobody will forget her. Alexa Marina Duran will forever be on everyone's lips," she said.
The family had a closed-casket funeral. Inside was Alexa's 5-foot-8 body in a white plastic bag.
“As a father I felt like I had the responsibility of my household to at least identify her," Orlando said. Slowly he stepped toward the coffin with a static hesitancy. "But I couldn’t do it. I couldn't open it. .... I’m a coward.”
While juggling anguish and lawsuits, the Duran family has tried to live as normally as possible.
At an Italian restaurant Thursday, Gina urged a friend to eat despite the man being on a diet.
“You have to live life to the fullest at all moments,” she said as she sipped on some white wine. She added, grimly, “You never know, tomorrow a bridge can just fall on you.”