A 92-year-old woman who had lived in a beachside Florida condominium for more than 20 years has been found dead amid the collapsed tower's rubble, her family said Wednesday.
Hilda Noriega had recently put the condo up for sale and was planning to move in with her family. They were notified late Tuesday that she was the 12th victim recovered from the rubble of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida. More than 140 people were still listed as unaccounted for early Wednesday.
Her family announced her death in a statement released by North Bay Village, a nearby city in which her son, Carlos Noriega, serves as the police chief.
"The Noriegas have lost the 'heart and soul' and 'matriarch' of their family, but will get through this time by embracing the unconditional love Hilda was known for," the statement said.
Carlos Noriega and his son, Mike Noriega, rushed to the site when they heard of the building collapse. Among the flying debris, they stumbled across mementos that bore witness to her life on the sixth floor of the building she'd called home for more than 20 years. They found an old picture of her with her late husband and their infant son, and a birthday card that friends from her prayer group sent two weeks earlier with the acronym "ESM," Spanish for "hand-delivered," scrawled across the yellow envelope with a butterfly etching.
"There was a message in the mess of all this," said Mike Noriega, who last spoke with his grandmother the day before the disaster. "It means not to give up hope. To have faith."
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mentioned the Noriega family during a news conference on Tuesday, calling their story "inspiring."
"I could see the difference that she made in his life, in his wife's life, and in her grandkids' lives," the governor said.
The Noriegas described Hilda as a fiercely independent and vivacious retiree. Her grandson said she was "the youngest 92-year-old I know ... 92 going on 62."
Her husband died six years ago, the family said, and she had decided to sell the condo and move in with her family.
She loved living near the ocean and friends, but "when you lose a spouse, you want to be surrounded by family ... and she wanted to spend more time with her family and grandchildren," said Sally Noriega, Hilda's daughter-in-law.
Hilda Noriega built a life with her husband and raised a family after coming to the U.S. from Cuba in 1960, her daughter-in-law said.
"She was just one of those people who from the first time she met a person she instantly loved that person, and that person instantly loved her," Sally said.
Frisaro reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.