Relatives of Florida condo collapse victims disagree over where memorial should be built

The fight over whether the site of June's deadly Florida condominium collapse should be sold for development or turned into a memorial boiled over at a court hearing Thursday. Four Canadians were among those killed.

Some want site left undeveloped to commemorate the dead, others want memorial built elsewhere

A person wipes away tears during a visit to a makeshift memorial for victims of the collapsed 12-storey condo on July 8, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. Relatives of the victims disagreed during a hearing today about where a permanent memorial should be built. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The fight over whether the site of June's deadly Florida condominium collapse should be sold for development or turned into a memorial boiled over at a court hearing Thursday, with some victims' relatives begging for time to find a buyer who won't put a new luxury high-rise there.

Several victims' relatives said the Surfside, Fla., site where the 12-storey Champlain Towers South once stood is hallowed ground. They pleaded with the judge overseeing the sale of the land to let them find a private party or government that would buy the two-acre beachfront lot at its approximate value of $150 million US and donate it for a memorial to the 98 who died.

Four Canadians were among the dead. 

The mother and wife of two of them, Elena Pazos, was among the survivors who said during the hearing that they support the property's sale and would like to see a memorial built elsewhere. 

Pazos said she never wants to go to the site because that will only reopen her wounds. She lost her 55-year-old husband, Miguel Pazos, her 23-year-old daughter, Michelle Pazos, and her daughter's best friend, Anastasia Gromova, 24, in the collapse. 

"Every time we would come there, we would remember how they died," Pazos said. Instead, she wants the memorial nearby, but private.

"I want to concentrate on how they lived, how they were, where they were born, where they grew up, where they fell in love, where they made friends."

'Sacred land'

Rabbi Lisa Shrem told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman that only part of an arm bone was recovered from her 54-year-old sister, Estelle Hedaya, meaning the rest of her was either lost in debris that was carted away or is still mixed in the dirt at the site. She argues the land should not be developed.

"That is sacred land," said Shrem, one of about a half dozen family members who spoke against development. "Our hope is that we can come to a resolution where we can sell the land, have everybody paid out who needs to be paid out and have a memorial. Please, we beg you, allow us some time."

Rescuers search for victims at the collapsed condo in June. Ninety-eight people, including four Canadians, died when the Champlain Towers South condominium fell on June 24. (Pedro Portal/The Associated Press)

Hanzman expects about $1 billion US in death and property claims to be filed. He said if the property sells for $150 million, combined with $50 million in insurance payments, that $200 million will only cover a fraction of the claims.

He has a team of lawyers investigating whether third parties can be identified as committing negligence leading to the June 24 collapse and sued to bring in more money. A cause has not been identified, but the building had a long history of problems.

Hanzman said he is sympathetic to those who want a memorial on the site, but his job is to get the most money for all families of those who died and the approximately 35 families who survived but lost their homes.

He has scheduled the auction for late February or early March and said that date is firm because many of the survivors need money to buy new homes.

He said possible sales and land swaps with government entities and others have been explored, but none have panned out and he doesn't expect any will.

"I would have loved to have seen a memorial at this site while at the same time we provided fair market value for the victims," Hanzman said. "It is time to realize that land is going to be sold."

Anastasia Gromova was one of four Canadians who died in the condo collapse. (Submitted by Larysa Gromova)

The judge said he understands emotions are high. But he said those relatives and others who have called the land's potential buyers "greedy" and vowed to challenge development will lower the bids and financially harm themselves and others. He wants that stopped.

"It is one thing to make an effort to get a memorial and to explore those avenues, and it is another thing to go a step further … and make statements that this property is not buildable, that the developers are vultures and that lawyers are colluding with them to steal the money from the victims," Hanzman said. "I know that is going to devalue the asset."

If the property is developed, there are proposals to build the memorial at a nearby park or to convert a side street adjoining the site.

With files from CBC News