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‘They lived their dream’: Ventnor couple die together in the Surfside condo collapse

“People have all these dreams,” said their Ventnor neighbor Sharla Feldscher. “They lived their dream.”

David, 58, and Bonnie Epstein, 56, who had spent their summers in Ventnor, died in the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.
David, 58, and Bonnie Epstein, 56, who had spent their summers in Ventnor, died in the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.Read moreCourtesy Jonathan Epstein

Around midnight on June 24, Jonathan Epstein was texting his mother, Bonnie. It was nothing major — he barely remembers the subject. An hour later, a news alert from CNN about a building collapse north of Miami lit up his phone.

That’s where his parents, David and Bonnie Epstein, lived. He sent another text, asking his mother if they were all right.

All night, he waited for the “delivered” symbol on his iPhone to appear. It never did.

An only child, Jonathan had stayed close to his parents, who had lived for 15 years in Bucks County, then moved to Brooklyn, and owned a townhouse in Ventnor and a condo in Surfside, Fla.

Home in New York, Jonathan scoured news sites for details about the building that had collapsed. On he read what he had been fearing. It was their building.

Last Wednesday, rescue workers discovered the body of Bonnie, who was 56.

On Friday they found David, who was 58.

“They were just the absolute coolest,” Jonathan said by phone last week. “I feel so grateful to be their son.”

Crews searching the site discovered four more bodies since Monday, bringing the death toll to 32. An additional 113 people were unaccounted for.

“The magnitude was much greater than it appeared on TV,” said Capt. Ken Pagurek of the Philadelphia Fire Department who arrived at the scene of the collapse Thursday.

Pagurek is part of the Pennsylvania Task Force 1, which sent 82 first responders down to Surfside last week to assist with the search. They’re expected to stay for two weeks.

He and other rescuers have been going through the wreckage and using personal items like photographs and passports to identify the apartments and their occupants.

The Epsteins purchased their condo on the ninth floor of Champlain Towers South in 2005. David, a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was a retired real estate investor. For 15 years, their son said, the couple had lived in Holland, Bucks County.

His parents had just finished signing paperwork for a penthouse unit in the Florida building, Jonathan said.

While devastated, the 26-year-old technical writer said he finds comfort in knowing he and his parents were so close they never left anything unspoken.

“We knew that we loved each other,” he said.

Ventnor friends remember couple as warm and generous

Richard Oller, a business partner of David’s for 30 years, had spoken to the couple just two days before the collapse.

“As I talked business, David countered with how much he and his wife Bonnie loved their early retirement,” Oller wrote in a memorial post on Facebook. “Through my deep sadness, my only comfort is knowing that on Wednesday, David was the happiest man I know, and he and Bonnie are still together.”

Both were obsessed with water and loved water sports, Oller wrote.

Normally, the couple would have traveled back up north by this time of year, said their friend Jerry Steiner.

David enjoyed kite surfing and he had recently hurt his shoulder. He was still undergoing physical therapy in Florida.

The second reason they were still in Surfside was their dog, Chance. Bonnie had been dog sitting while in Florida and one day the owners of the pit bull mix never returned.

“They were doing this as good Samaritans,” Steiner said.

So the Epsteins adopted the dog and were not traveling in part because Chance was not feeling well.

“It’s a gut-wrenching feeling,” Steiner said of losing his friend of four years, David.

“They were the warmest, generous, funniest, kind, loving couple,” said another friend, Stephanie Pressman.

Bonnie was Stephanie’s best friend in the Ventnor community, Pressman said. Talking about her pal, she choked up recalling their times jet skiing and watching sunsets over the water together at the Crown Key Yacht Club, on Ventnor’s bay side, where they lived.

“It’s truly devastating to lose two of your best friends from the Jersey Riviera,” she said. “They were so brilliant.”

Once while the couples were in New York together, David demonstrated his chess skills by beating a man in a street game, a memory that still makes Stephanie laugh through tears.

When the pandemic was first raging in 2020, David Epstein, Steiner, and Steven Pressman would take walks together around Ventnor, seeking some semblance of normalcy.

Steven still can’t believe that his friends are gone.

“I’m waiting for him to come out of his front door,” he said.

Other neighbors continue to mourn.

“Looking at their deck is just so painful,” said Sharla Feldscher, a public relations professional who lived next door to the couple in Ventnor for about 15 years.

When she learned of the couple’s passing, she wrote to their son, offering condolences.

“People have all these dreams,” she recalled telling him. “They lived their dream.”