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‘We’re looking for respect’: Why families of Surfside victims are still battling for a 'fitting' memorial

A memorial near the Champlain Towers disaster site holds photos of missing persons in Surfside, Fla. Rescuers continue their search for survivors, but have confirmed that nine people are dead and more than 150 are still missing.
Some of the families of the 98 victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside want a memorial to go on a portion of the property where their loved ones died.

The 98 people who died last year in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building will be remembered with a memorial — a group called the Remembrance Committee is tasked with designing it.

But where it will be placed remains a complicated and emotional issue.

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The new owners of the site and the families of the victims have conflicting priorities. One side is in the business of developing a commercially successful building. The other is focused on seeing a memorial for their loved ones, erected where the tower collapsed.

Meanwhile the town of Surfside has designated a section of 88th Street, immediately north of the site, for a memorial,but that doesn't quite meet these families' requirements.

An unusual meeting took place on Sept. 19, 2022, inside the Surfside Town Hall. Representatives of the new owners of the Champlain Towers South property met with a group of relatives of the victims.

One of them, Martin Langesfeld, introduced himself.

"My sister [Nicole] and her husband [Luis Sadovnic] were killed on this piece of land where you guys are trying to develop," Langesfeld said.

Across from him sat Jeff Rossely, representing DAMAC, the Dubai-based developer that bought the Surfside property for $120 million. Some of that money went toward a settlement for the victims' families and property owners of more than $1 billion. Langesfeld took small posters with the photos of the 98 victims on them and handed it to the men with DAMAC.

Surfside Mayor Shlomo Danzinger sat in the middle and attempted to mediate. The town of Surfside has offered a nearby location for a memorial, just steps away, on public property,but the group of relatives want it to be placed where the lives were lost.

"I appreciate everybody here," Danzinger said at the outset. "This is not going to be an easy conversation."

Rossely with DAMAC told Langesfeld that he came with a representative of the future building's architect to listen.

"We really want to understand what form of memorial you’re looking for," Rossely said. "Whether it’s on the site — that location where the building was — or whether it’s on the site in an area where there’s greater gathering space. Our objective for being here is to be cooperative and to be listening, not to set up a conflict scenario."

The company plans for a new tower includes an area on the north side where a large number of victims’ remains were found after the collapse.

Langesfeld said families aren’t asking for that whole spot for the memorial, although they would have “loved” that - but they do want it built in that section.

“The most important thing for us as families is an allocation on the site where [most of the victims] were killed,” he said. “I don’t care what happens [around it] — something needs to go on the site.”

Mayor Danzinger then said the town and families don't have much leverage in these conversations with DAMAC, the Dubai developer.

"This table is not a negotiation. It's us trying to make an ask. This property is theirs legally. They can get up and walk out and that’ll be the end of that. It’s really an ask on our end. It’s like, 'Can you please give us something here?'"

Rossely, representing DAMAC, indicated that they were open to more meetings. They are listening, but they do have commercial interests, he explained.

"There’s always a way for working those things out if people have good will," Rossely said. But he added: "Always a way of them not working out if people want to take rigid positions."

Langesfeld said he agreed.

For the Langesfeld family, the hurt stems from how little of Nicole Langesfeld was recovered from the site.

"I have only a piece of my daughter," Andrea Langesfeld said. "There, where you want to build a building [are] the remains of my daughter."

Andrea Langesfeld wasn’t sitting at the main table, but in seating nearby. In multiple meetings that WLRN has covered in the aftermath of the tragedy, many members of the family have been vocal but, she had kept her silence until now.

"You’re looking for money, having a return of an investment; we’re looking for respect for our loved ones," she continued. "That’s the big difference. I can give you all my money, but I will not have my daughter back."

After the meeting, Langesfeld told WLRN he feels that government officials could help by putting some pressure on the developers. They had shown support for a memorial on the property at the event marking a year after the collapse.

"When it was the one year and all the cameras were around, they were here and they stood in back of me and clapped and gave a standing ovation when I mentioned a memorial must go on the site of the collapse," Langesfeld said, referring to elected officials including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Jill Biden. "Now when the opportunity is there, are they actually going to do something?"

You can watch Langesfeld's speech in a recorded video of the event marking one year since the collapse, on June 24, 2022.

"Please help us in working together with a developer who purchased this land," he said from a podium. "Let's find a way to incorporate a fitting memorial on a portion of the collapse site."

Langesfeld doesn’t know what the memorial will look like. But he added: "It won’t be a place where someone goes and cries and it’s depressing. We want it to be a beautiful, uplifting place where people can go pay their respects, have memories, smile."

The committee tasked with designing the memorial will meet again this month. Construction of the new building will likely start in 2024.

"There are 98 reasons why there's only one purchaser for that land," Pablo Langesfeld, Martin's father, told WLRN. "I don't think any developer will build on top of their sister, brother, daughter, grandma's graveyard. For us, it will be very important to have a place to build the memorial. It will be very, very important."

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care for the station. Verónica has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in journalism. For many years, Veronica lived out of a suitcase (or two) in New York City, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, D.C., San Antonio and Austin, where she worked as the statehouse and health care reporter with NPR member station KUT.