Families and friends of some of the 98 people who died in the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla. are demanding the site be reserved for a monument instead of another building.
Flanked by community and religious leaders, teary-eyed speakers at a news conference on Thursday clutched photos of loved ones only yards away from the excavated pit where federal investigators continue processing evidence to determine what caused the 12-story, 136-unit oceanfront condominium complex to fall on June 24.
“Nobody deserves to go to sleep and never wake up, crushed by their own home,” said Vicky Btesh, a newlywed whose 26-year-old husband, Andres Levine, was killed in the collapse. “We do not build over dead people.”
The news conference took place only hours after a hearing at which Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman announced the property at 8777 Collins Avenue would go up for auction in February or March to raise as much money as possible for unit owners and their heirs.
“Now, the numbers are the numbers, and the claims in this case, both economic and injury and death could easily approach or exceed a billion dollars,” Hanzman said at the hearing. “So, absent extremely viable claims against extremely solvent defendants, this insurance money and the value of this property may be the primary sources for compensating these victims.”
Damac Properties, a Dubai-based developer founded by billionaire Hussain Sajwani, on Friday signed a contract to purchase the lot for $120 million, according to The Real Deal. While other offers will be considered until the auction date, the site reported, Damac is expected to make a $16 million deposit, $150,000 of which is non-refundable.
But some families are less concerned about money than respecting the “sacred ground” where their loved ones perished, said Rabbi Lisa Shrem.
“Most of their remains are on the site behind me,” said Shrem, whose best friend, Estelle Hedaya, was the final victim identified in the collapse. Shrem pointed out that, in Judaism, it is not only the soul that is sacred, but the body as well.
Martin Langesfeld, whose sister Nicole Langesfeld, 26, and brother-in-law Luis Sadovnic, 25, were both killed in the collapse, said it took three weeks for his family to get back “portions and a percentage of a body.”
“We ask for honor, we ask for respect, we ask for a monument to be built on this site and not one inch away,” he said.
Langesfeld was referring to suggestions that a monument be erected at the Surfside tennis courts, which are across the street from the collapse site, or at a nearby Miami Beach park — both ideas that he rejected.
“This land will forever be their resting place,” he said.
He and the other families in attendance were also against a proposed land swap, which would trade the collapse site for a superior property five blocks north where the Surfside Community Center now stands.
That idea has already been shot down by town leaders and the preponderance of community members who have spoken out on the subject, said Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer.
Still, owners who used Champlain Towers South as a second or vacation home, and did not lose anyone they loved in the collapse, might be more focused on maximizing profits than honoring the dead, she said.
“They don’t care, because they don’t live in Surfside,” she said. “They don’t care if it sparks civil war in town.”
Salzhauer also pointed out that Neisen Kasdin, an attorney for Champlain Towers South Condominium Association who is pushing for a quick sale of the property, made a name for himself representing developers.
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Kasdin argued at a recent Surfside zoning workshop against proposed height and density restrictions at the site that would prevent developers from building a luxury hotel on the lot.
“They will impact the value of the Champlain Towers owners and victims, as well as many others along up and down the east side of Collins Ave,” Kasdin said at the meeting.
The commission agreed to allow a new building at the same height as the old one, Salzhauer said, but she is vehemently against the rapid sale of the property or any type of land swap.
“Selling the land is good for the developers, but not the grieving families,” she said.
And there is another, much more sensitive reason the idea of a land swap must be quashed.
“We need this to go away as fast as possible, or the residents are going to turn on the survivors,” she said.
Monica Iken, founder of the September’s Mission Foundation, who organized the event, said the site where Champlain Towers South once stood is the only acceptable place for a memorial.
“If somebody does try to build over it, we’re not going to let that happen,” she said. “I understand families need money, but the souls of the lost take precedence.”
Iken’s husband, Michael Iken, was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Iken said she spent years fighting for a monument on the site, which is now one of the most visited places in Manhattan.
Now, she’s trying to do the same in Surfside.
Iken said victims’ families might at some point be willing to negotiate how much of the land becomes a memorial, but for now, they are asking for the entire 1.8-acre lot. She said she is hoping an angel investor might step in to purchase the land for a memorial, or possibly a developer who would be willing to compromise by building on a portion of the land and leaving another portion for a monument.
But Salzhauer doesn’t see the latter happening.
“Developers know that a memorial within eyesight of their new building is going to make it very uncomfortable for people to buy property there,” Salzhauer said. “No one wants to look out the window and know they are sleeping on top of a giant tragedy, on top of ghosts and bones.”
Ronit Felszer, whose son, Ilan Naibryf, died in the collapse, said she still wakes up in tears, thinking about the horrible death of her 21-year-old son who was born on Sept. 11.
“Ilan did not choose to die, but he did choose to live,” she said, adding that no one should be comfortable with the idea of building over “dead people or mass graves.”
Rushing the sale of the land is unfair to not only victims’ families, but to the community of Surfside and everyone around the world who suffered along with them as the horrific tragedy unfolded, said Rev. Bill Minson, a chaplain with the United States Secret Service, who attended Thursday’s press conference as a concerned private citizen.
Minson said it was his first time in Surfside, but he was glad to meet some of the families for whom he has been praying. One of the most important things he can do is to connect them with others who have been through similar loss, he said, as he did after the Las Vegas and Columbine massacres, the Parkland shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11.
“We need to understand that everyone heals in their own time, so try not to rush people along, even though you think it will help them,” he said. “It could hinder it. Give them that time, allow that space.”
Iken said it took years to negotiate the land for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, but she and others were able to make it happen due in large part to a tremendous outpouring of community support.
She said anyone interested in donating or helping in any way to ensure families of the Surfside collapse victims get the same respect may contact her or make donations earmarked “Surfside” at www.septembersmission.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Surfside families demand monument for Champlain condo collapse victims