KENNER, La. — It’s been seven days of not knowing for Ashley Irwin Dean. Her sister, Cassondra Billedeau-Stratton, is missing in the rubble of her apartment building, Champlain Towers, in Surfside, Florida.
Irwin Dean struggles to speak in the past tense, not knowing whether to say “Cassie ‘was’”, or “Cassie ‘is’”.
“The loss is on many levels. She was like my kid, she’s my best friend, she’s my baby sister,” said Irwin Dean.
Billedeau-Stratton is a Bonnabel High School graduate who went on to split her time between Miami and New York. As a pilates instructor, Billedeau-Stratton was a healthy eater who took care of her health.
Her sister said she was an aspiring actress and model who hired photographers during her trips around the world. She loved wine and tasting foods from other countries.
But, as Irwin Dean said, she was still a Kenner girl at heart.
“She liked to travel a lot, but she always made it back home to New Orleans, this is where she’s from,” said Irwin Dean.
“When she would come home, she would eat like a New Orleanian. She wanted her red beans and rice, she wanted me to cook her gumbo, and I would have to put big, big, big pots of it. Because the only place that she could not ever eat clean was at home,” she said.
When the towers collapsed early last Thursday, Billedeau-Stratton was on the phone with her husband, Mike Stratton, a political strategist in Colorado.
By the weekend, Stratton and Billedeau-Stratton’s family from Kenner – her mother, 23-year-old daughter, sister, and a friend – were in Miami to look for her.
Irwin Dean said she was showing Billedeau-Stratton’s photo to people, asking if they’d seen her. She walked several blocks to the front of the collapse site, and then found an opening on the beach, where she saw the collapse from the back of the building.
“That was the surreal moment for me when I just knew, it just hit me that how bad this really was. And all I could think of was that I knew she was in there,” said Irwin Dean.
“It’s such an excruciating pain to not know, you know, and to think that she’s underneath all that rubble. It just really hard to comprehend just the scope of what has happened.”
This is the second tragedy to impact this family. Irwin Dean’s twin sister died at 18-years-old when Billedeau-Stratton was just nine.
Irwin Dean said she cared for her younger sister throughout her life, helping to raise her in the wake of their sister’s death.
Irwin Dean said she never imagined she’d one day lose her only remaining sister.
Billedeau-Stratton was scheduled to fly home to Kenner in just two weeks.
But now, her family is praying for a miracle. If not for her, for any of the people missing in Surfside.
“I really don’t know how long it’s going to take to find Cassie. But I just really pray that they find her soon, I really do,” said Irwin Dean.
The family wants to warn people they do not have a GoFundMe page set up to raise money, but unfortunately, Miami-Dade Police are investigating several fraudulent fundraisers set up in Cassie’s name.