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As collapsed condo ruins become ‘holy site,’ Surfside weighs how to honor dead

Florida officials begin to consider memorial plans for the former Champlain Towers South, raise security to protect personal belongings, as death toll climbs to 94

The pile of debris from the collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building is seen through fencing on July 11, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP)
The pile of debris from the collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building is seen through fencing on July 11, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP)

SURFSIDE, Florida (AP) — As crews keep searching for the last missing remains of the souls who perished in their collapsing beachfront condos nearly three weeks ago, the question is swirling across the ruins of the Champlain Towers South: What will become of the ground that bears so much pain?

“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.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett suggested Monday that with scores of families still processing their losses, it is too soon to come up with anything specific, but he said the tragedy — now with 94 people confirmed dead and 22 others still missing — compels the town to place something on the site to remember those who are gone.

“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,” Burkett said. “It has become a holy site.”

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.

Flowers and messages of love adorn wooden hearts with the names of victims of the Champlain Towers South building collapse, at a makeshift memorial near the site, on July 12, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (AP Photo/ Rebecca Blackwell)

Many more personal items have been removed, along with twisted steel rebar and shards of concrete, to be 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 is 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.”

Peter Martin, of New York, who was in Miami visiting his brother, pays his respects at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Champlain Towers South building collapse, on July 12, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (AP/Rebecca Blackwell)

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 Sen. 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.

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