Surfside Families, Officials Debate What to Do With Building Site Once Debris Cleared

Officials and loved ones of those who died in the collapse of a beachfront condo building near Miami are beginning the process of deciding how to memorialize the victims as crews finish searching for them in the rubble, the Associated Press reported.

"There's a lot of emotion. People talk about it as a holy site," said Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez. "People want some sort of connection with their family member."

The mayor of Surfside, where the collapsed Champlain Towers South were located, suggested Monday that the time hasn't come yet to pin down a specific plan and that the tragedy that has officially killed 94 people—with 22 still missing—calls for a designation in their memory.

"I think the first thing we need to do is get the families situated, so they have a semblance of their life back—get them to the point where they aren't burdened by the grief and emotion that they're going through right now," Burkett said. "It's obvious that this has become much more than a collapsed building site. It has become a holy site."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

"It's obvious that this has become much more than a collapsed building site," Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said. "It has become a holy site." Above, a candle melts in the sun at a memorial to the victims of the collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo on July 11, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

An impromptu memorial sprung up along a nearby tennis court, soon after the collapse. The fence is now festooned with drying bouquets and fading photographs of those confirmed dead and those yet to be found. Crosses and candles line the street, and stars of David are interspersed throughout the scene. There are teddy bears, toys, shoes—all in tribute to the scores of victims.

Many more personal items have been removed along with twisted steel rebar and shards of concrete, kept in storage for investigators who are gathering clues as to what made 12 stories plunge to the ground on June 24.

In time, all of it will be cleared away. What then?

Memorials are not unusual after a tragedy, of course. Monuments were erected at the site of the World Trade Center after its twin towers were felled by terrorists, as was a memorial in Oklahoma City. After 1989's Loma Prieta Earthquake in Northern California, memorials popped up across the San Francisco Bay Area.

It's a human act to want to remember, said Dovy Ainsworth, whose parents, Tzvi and Itty Ainsworth, died in the Surfside tragedy.

"It provides comfort for the families and community while also serving as a reminder ensuring it never happens again," Ainsworth said, suggesting that it might be inappropriate to rebuild because "so many lost their lives."

Owners of the demolished complex and its board of directors have yet to formally weigh in on the discussion. Survivors and family members are already suing for civil damages. The beachfront property sits atop valued real estate, which could complicate how things proceed.

"It seems indelicate and insensitive to talk about the use of the property other than a memorial," said state Senator Jason Pizzo, a Democrat who represents the Surfside area. "It's an incredibly complicated balance to be respectful and honor the memory of those we've lost, while also being diligent to ensure that we help people rebuild their lives [and] to get the greatest value for their homes."

Authorities on Monday said they are increasing security along the perimeter to preserve potential evidence and to keep people off the property, however well-intentioned their interests might be.

"This is one of those situations where you have the connections of the investigation and a lot of hurt, a lot of pain and a lot of want to make people feel better," said Ramirez, the police commissioner.

Memorial wall
Workers with Surfside Public Works sweep up dead flowers from a makeshift memorial for victims of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building on July 6, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo