Representatives of one potential buyer are scheduled to visit the two-acre site this week. A judge approved a $120 million sale agreement on Oct. 6 for East Oceanside, a subsidiary of billion-dollar developer DAMAC Properties, which is based in Dubai and trying to make its first real estate foray in the United States.
Other potential buyers can still make offers, which could compel an auction early next year.
“I’ve never seen anything move so quickly,” Surfside town commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said Friday. “Families need to be compensated, yes, but this isn’t giving us time to grieve and try to heal.”
The tension between compensating survivors who lost their homes and families whose relatives lost their lives is playing out in the community as well as in a Miami courtroom. Lawsuits were filed almost immediately after Champlain Towers South fell in the predawn hours of June 24, sheared in half for reasons that are still unknown. Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Michael A. Hanzman held the first hearing the following week — even as rescue and then recovery teams were searching the site. Not until July 26 would the remains of the 98th victim finally be identified.
Hanzman, who has estimated that claims for losses could top $1 billion, made his priorities clear at the outset. While telling attorneys to be sensitive to the differences between “people who suffered injury and death and those who suffered only economically,” he said it is “this court’s duty to move these cases with dispatch.”
He has even admonished families who have spoken out about wanting a memorial on the site. Those comments, the judge said, only serve to “bring down the value and bring less money for the victims to be compensated.”
“The property will be sold,” Hanzman said at a hearing in late September. “It is going to be sold for the most money that can be achieved. . . . [It] is not being donated by those victims for the public good, whether it be for a memorial or any other public purpose.”
Hanzman has already accepted a $95 million appraisal of the 136-unit condominium — the price it ostensibly could have fetched the day before the disaster. He has not announced how proceeds of a sale will be divided between property owners and victims’ families.
The site is now a murky lagoon with a few truncated concrete posts and rusting rebar visible. Since Miami-Dade County stopped paying a contractor $6,000 a day to run pumps, nearly two feet of tidal water and rain have filled what once was Champlain Towers South’s garage space. Town officials and some families say human remains are probably buried in the sand.
“There’s apparently water coming in from everywhere,” Salzhauer said. “It’s mind-boggling that somebody would want to build there before we even know if that’s viable.”
The town has been largely cut out of what’s expected to be a years-long federal probe into what caused the catastrophe. The structural engineer it hired repeatedly has been denied access to the site by Miami-Dade County, which considers 8777 Collins Ave. to be a crime scene.
Allyn Kilsheimer — who investigated the Pentagon’s damage after 9/11 and the Oklahoma City federal building’s destruction after a 1995 bombing — may at last be permitted onto the condo site this week to run tests and soundings with his team, according to town officials.
“It’s a great concern that there’s been a loss of focus with respect to the urgent need to find out why the building fell down,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said Friday. “Instead, the focus has turned to selling the property.”
As that moves forward, he and other local leaders are grappling with the emotionally charged question of what should be erected to mark the tragedy and where it should go. Some families have appealed for state and federal funding to help purchase even a fraction of their ground zero for a memorial. The mayor has consulted with former New York governor George E. Pataki, who oversaw the construction of the 9/11 memorial where the World Trade Center had stood.
“He believes that [Surfside’s] memorial should be on the site just like it was in New York, and I told him I felt the same way,” Burkett said.
Yet there’s little consensus among survivors or families whose relatives died. Many remain as concerned about what might still be found in the more than 12,000 tons of debris collected in the aftermath and hauled 14 miles away to a vacant lot near Miami International Airport.
The county invited them this month to visit the lot, which is surrounded by fencing and no-trespassing signs. About 20 people showed up to observe workers sifting through the huge piles of gravel, rebar, mattress pads, clothing and other remnants of lives.
Pablo Langesfeld, whose daughter Nicole, and her newlywed husband, Luis Sadovnic, were killed, never got the invitation. He has gone there on his own, though, and has been distressed to see machinery rolling over the wreckage.
“I know that part of my daughter is in that mountain,” Langesfeld said last week. “To see a bulldozer run over it, it’s like putting more pain into the pain. We want our loved ones to be treated with respect, to be remembered and treated with respect.”
Other debris waits in an area warehouse, including 17 safes that were pulled intact from the condo site. Attorney Michael Goldberg, the court-appointed receiver for the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, recently told Hanzman that he will have a locksmith try to open each safe in hopes of returning the contents to families. He intends to have any photos carefully cleaned, scanned and posted on a website for relatives to identify.
Individuals who lived at Champlain Towers South have until midnight on Nov. 30 to submit claims for money gleaned from the site. More than $750,000 in “loose cash” was found by recovery teams and other workers in the remnants of the condominium building, Goldberg said. Some was in wallets and purses, but most was just random wads of bills.
The money soon will be taken by armored truck to the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington for asbestos decontamination.
“I have had people submit to me several claims of cash ranging from $4,500 to $130,000,” Goldberg said. “We are, I expect, going to have claims for cash that far exceed the amount of cash coming back.”
He assured the judge that he and his team of attorneys were moving along as fast as possible. Rabbi Lisa Shrem of New York asked him to slow it down.
“I myself am a victim. My best friend, my sister, was the last victim. Number 98, Estelle Hedaya, found on the 33rd day,” Shrem explained to Hanzman via Zoom. She called the site of the collapse “sacred land” and said she’d only received “a quarter of a forearm bone to bury.”
“Please, I beg of you, just allow us some time,” Shrem said. “We were last into these court proceedings because we were burying, we were at wakes and shivas. . . . Please, just a small amount of time, that’s all we ask.”