Surfside families call on governments, donors to buy collapse site to build memorial

·4 min read

After a Miami-Dade judge warned their activism could hurt the planned sale of the Champlain Towers South condo property, the families of those who died in the Surfside collapse held a press conference Thursday to demand that a memorial be built at the collapse site instead of a luxury high-rise.

Standing in front of where 98 people died nearly three months ago, the group of family members held up photos of their loved ones and repeated a slogan they created to support their efforts: “We don’t build on dead bodies.”

They called on federal and state governments, philanthropists and corporate leaders to step in and purchase the 1.9-acre oceanfront plot before it gets sold to an unknown bidder offering $120 million to build a new development.

“This spot is sacred,” said Ronit Felszer, whose 21-year-old son, Ilan Naibryf, died in the collapse. “It is unacceptable for the last place my son was alive to be anything other than a memorial.”

Families of Surfside collapse victims gather together as they held a press conference Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, at the site of the Champlain Towers South Condo collapse to call for a memorial to be constructed where 98 victims died in Surfside, Florida.
Families of Surfside collapse victims gather together as they held a press conference Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, at the site of the Champlain Towers South Condo collapse to call for a memorial to be constructed where 98 victims died in Surfside, Florida.

The family members were joined by Monica Iken-Murphy, whose husband was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

Iken-Murphy, who worked to get the National September 11 Memorial & Museum built, volunteered to help the Surfside families with fundraising and government outreach.

“I just want to make clear so that everyone in America understands the importance, that we do not in America build over dead people. We just don’t do that. And I won’t allow it as long as I’m here,” Iken-Murphy said.

Despite their best efforts, the land may be sold as planned by early spring. And Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman, who is overseeing the sale as part of a class-action lawsuit, said holding press conferences to criticize the sale and calling the land “sacred” in the media may decrease the value of the property, reducing the eventual payout for victims’ estates and survivors who owned units in the building.

“They’re scaring away potential bidders and they’re also making the land less valuable to those few that will bid,” Hanzman said in court Thursday ahead of the press conference. “They are going to be driving down the value of this asset.”

A man walks his dog near the Champlain Towers South property in Surfside, Florida, on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
A man walks his dog near the Champlain Towers South property in Surfside, Florida, on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

The court-appointed receiver for the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association said the $120 million sale will be formalized in a contract next week. Other potential buyers can still submit bids for the property. Finalizing the land sale could take until early spring, the receiver, Michael Goldberg, said.

The speakers at the press conference did not mention Hanzman’s comments. But Vicki Btesh, whose husband, Andres Levine, and two cousins died in the collapse, told Hanzman she and other family members were not trying to devalue the land. She said they want to find a way to put a memorial on the site and sell the land to compensate survivors and victims’ families.

“I do think there are more options and I do think they should be explored,” Btesh said in court.

Other nearby properties have been floated as the site of a future memorial for the victims of the collapse, including at the Miami Beach Oceanside Park and in Surfside on 88th Street or near the town’s tennis center.

The families initially proposed an idea to trade public beachfront land to the eventual buyer of the Champlain Towers South site so that a memorial could be built there, but Surfside commissioners said they would not support the land swap. The proposal would involve tearing down Surfside’s community center and building a new one alongside the memorial.

The families said Thursday they are focused on raising money to buy the land. Martin Langesfeld, whose sister Nicole Langesfeld and brother-in-law Luis Sadovnic died in the collapse, said he hoped local, state and federal leaders “support, respect and aid our efforts to build a memorial.”

The property was long ago cleared of the rubble of the fallen tower, all of which was hauled to a remote site, where county crews have continued to search for human remains. Though all 98 victims have been identified, Langesfeld said the remains of many victims are still missing.

“And this land will forever be their resting place,” Langesfeld said.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, center, joined families of Surfside collapse victims as they held a press conference Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, at the site of the Champlain Towers South Condo collapse to call for a memorial to be constructed where 98 victims died in Surfside, Florida.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, center, joined families of Surfside collapse victims as they held a press conference Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, at the site of the Champlain Towers South Condo collapse to call for a memorial to be constructed where 98 victims died in Surfside, Florida.

Raising enough money for an alternative sale will pose challenges, including concerns from unit owners who lost their homes in the collapse. Moshe Candiotti, who lived in Unit 407, watched the press conference and said he supported a memorial being built — but not at the expense of his compensation. He said he put nearly $400,000 into his condo and wanted assistance quickly because he is currently living in a hotel.

“I support a memorial,” he said. “But don’t throw us in the street.”

Langesfeld later said in a statement that the families will “exhaust every single resource available to make sure the victims get compensated as needed.”

“Just to clarify, we are not asking the unit owners to donate anything,” he said. “We are asking the city, state and federal government to purchase this land to respect and honor the 98 innocent victims who died in their homes. Another option would be philanthropists across the world and corporations.”

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