SURFSIDE, Fla. – Repeating that “we do not build over dead bodies,” family members of Surfside condo collapse victims demanded Thursday that a memorial be placed at the site where the Champlain Towers South once stood — not new construction.
Thursday’s news conference took place on the beachwalk along Collins Avenue, between 87th and 88th Streets.
A debate has ensued since the June 24 tragedy over what to do with the 1.88-acre plot of land where 98 lives were lost.
Some say it should be sold for the highest price to support the surviving residents and families of the victims. Others wish to see a memorial on that very land, which they say is sacred.
One of those family members who believes the land is sacred is Vicky Btesh, who lost her 26-year-old husband Andrés Levine and her three cousins inside of Champlain Towers South. On Thursday, she and others spoke about what they expect to be a long grueling process — giving their loved ones the respect they think they deserve.
“877 Collins Avenue, is, and forever will be home,” said Btesh at the podium. “Nothing else but the memorial shall be built on top of this sacred land.”
Martin Langesfeld, who lost his sister and brother-and-law in the collapse, agreed that the site should become a memorial. “It is horrifying that a place where 98 people died, others want to build,” he said in disbelief.
Thankfully, Monica Iken, who lost her husband on September 11, 2001, is helping the families with this process, just as she did 20 years ago. She spearheaded the 9/11 Memorial in Battery Park.
“This is part of this process, but the survivors and everyone else need to understand that we will figure it out, but this is not your resource,” said Iken to the crowd. “We’ll figure out a way to give it to you, but this is not going to be your resource.”
The process will not be easy. The land is worth tens of millions of dollars, and the financial piece is crucial to some of the survivors.
Furthermore, on Thursday, it was revealed by an attorney during a hearing that roughly $1 million in loose cash had been recovered from the collapse site, but distributing this money will be a challenge.
According to some of the victims and their families, monetary support has yet to come. During the news conference, a man who escaped the collapse said he is borderline homeless, and the $350,000 he had invested in Champlain Towers South was supposed to be his future.
“On a burial ground, you don’t build over that. However, don’t leave us in the street,” he said.
So, where do these families go from here? Iken says she will be reaching out to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and stakeholders, just as she did following 9/11.
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Earlier this month, a land swap deal was shot down by Surfside commissioners. That proposal called for a memorial to be built at the collapse site, trading public land to the eventual new owner of the Champlain Towers South property.
Opponents didn’t like that specific plan because it would have meant tearing down the town’s community center and building a new one at the collapse site.
However, commissioners committed to exploring other options for a memorial, both at the site of the collapse and in other areas of the town.