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‘This is a turning point in our lives.’ Heart of tight-knit Cuban family died in Surfside

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If her large Cuban family is the solar system, Rosa Saez was the blazing sun around whom everyone else revolved.

Born in Cuba and the fifth of eight children, a divorced mother of two and grandmother of six, she radiated her warmth not only to family but also to dear friends, her many causes, her volunteer work at such Miami touchstones as Fairchild Tropical Garden, her church, her book group and ceramics class, her jobs at Florida International University and a Coral Gables travel agency.

If you live in Miami and leave your house, you probably knew her.

“For someone who never used social media, she has the biggest social network of anybody I’ve ever known,” said her son Carlos, who lives outside Chicago and is co-founder and managing director of The Operand Group, which manages a portfolio of small business investments. “It wasn’t superficial. She knew everything about everyone, knew their struggles and successes, their joy. She celebrated them.”

Here are the names and stories of the missing and dead in Surfside condo collapse

Saez — Rosi to those close to her — is one of the Miami residents who died in the devastating collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside. Her family was notified July 11 that she had been found.

She lived in South Miami, but that Wednesday she had spent the day with five friends seeing “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at the Olympia Theater. She told Olga Ramudo, president and CEO of Express Travel in the Gables where Rosa worked, that the plan was to have dinner and then, to avoid a long drive home at night, a grown-up “pajama party” at the condo of Maggie Vasquez Bello, who lived in Champlain Towers.

Three of the women begged off and went home. Saez and Francis Plasencia of Miami decided to stay with Maggie. All three perished. Francis, 67, a parishioner at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, was recovered on July 5; Maggie, 68, was recovered on July 10.

The decision — so simple, one anyone could make — has changed her family forever.

“This is a turning point in our lives,” said her brother, Ignacio Maza, executive vice president of a network of travel companies in New York. “It’s very, very hard. Life surprises you sometimes, and you have to be very strong.”

The word “strong” is fitting because of how accurately it described Saez. She was one of the first women to earn an MBA at FIU, where she later worked for many years. She retired, but not having a job turned the preternaturally active Saez into “a lion in a cage,” Maza said.

She loved to travel, perhaps because when her family left Cuba, her father worked for Dow Chemical and the family lived all over Latin America and the Caribbean: Venezuela, Argentina, Puerto Rico. So getting a job as an independent consultant at Express Travel was a perfect fit.

“She was always on the go,” said Ramudo of her colleague, whom she had known since they were teenagers in Puerto Rico. “We would laugh and ask, ‘Where are you going tonight?’ Every day, she was doing something. She would go to happy hour with one of the girls here. Someone was giving away a wheelchair, and she was going to take it to an elderly home facility. With her, it was always: ‘What good can I do?’ ”

A three-time cancer survivor who weathered brutal rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Saez also lived through the litmus test for all longtime Miami residents: Hurricane Andrew, which so devastated her Gables by the Sea home they found fish in the space between the walls, according to Maza.

A devout Catholic who was a Eucharistic minister at Church of the Epiphany in Miami, she even walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, said her son Pedro, a clinical neuropsychologist in Miami.

“She started walking to train for it as if she was going to run a marathon. She’d walk 10 miles in the heat,” said Pedro, a graduate of Christopher Columbus High in Miami, like his brother. “It didn’t matter what footwear she had on. She’d get her Apple watch, and she could walk 10 or 12 miles. She walks a lot, five or six miles four or five times a week. She’s healthier than I am.”

“None of us could keep up with her,” Maza said. “There were times after I spoke to her I had to lie down and process what she was doing. Such energy and drive. She was an amazing human being, the center of our family.”

With a big family spread out across the globe from Washington, D.C., to Colombia to the Dominican Republic, Saez was the catalyst for keeping everyone in touch, the magnet that prevented anyone from straying too far from the family orbit despite work, kids, time zones and busy schedules. She celebrated her 70th birthday in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic in February with Maza and their sister Margarita, and Maza said she had a wonderful time.

Because, of course, she was with her family.

“The lesson of this is to make us all re-examine our lives and make sure we’re living every day to the fullest,” Maza said. “And tell the people we love that we love them.”

Rosa Saez

Rosa Saez

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