Mike Stratton was sleeping when he was awakened by the ringing of his phone.
It was Cassondra Billedeau-Stratton, his wife, calling out desperately because the building where she was in Miami was shaking.
He told him that from his balcony he could see how the ground around the pool had collapsed leaving a hole.
Then the phone line was cut.
“It was 1:30 in the morning. I will never, never forget that, ”said Mike.
Cassondra is one of the 98 fatalities which left the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South building at 8777 Collins Avenue in Surfside.
That morning of June 24, something that seemed unimaginable happened: an apartment building facing the sea was swallowed by the earth.
And although some of the occupants managed to escape with their lives, Cassie, as her family and friends call her, did not have the same luck.
His remains were found under the rubble by rescue teams who for weeks tried to find signs of life.
“I wish I hadn’t been there that night.” tells his sister Ashley Dean, from New Orleans, in dialogue with BBC Mundo.
“She always traveled. I had recently been to New York and a few days after the crash I was coming home. But I never arrive”.
Cassie was a model. Since she loved traveling so much, she created a blog called “Chic Living 365”, where she posted photos and texts about beauty, fashion and lifestyle in her favorite places.
During her life, she also worked as an interior decorator, actress and Pilates instructor, an activity that in recent times had become one of her great passions.
She met her husband in New York and they were married five years ago.
“Cassie and Mike began to spend more and more time in Miami, especially with the pandemic. They moved to apartment 410, where they had a wonderful view, but she used to say that she felt small tremors in the condo when they started to build a building on the lot next door, ”says her sister.
They had spent a few days together in the apartment, until Mike left because he had to travel to Washington DC.
They said goodbye without imagining that it would be the last time they would be together.
More than three months have passed since the tragedy occurred.
The remains of the building that still stood were demolished and where the Champlain Towers South building once stood, there is now an empty lot facing the sea.
A multi-million dollar plot… and a lugtor “sacred”
A piece of land that is worth tens of millions of dollars, but which for some of the families of the victims has a “sacred” character.
The debate over the fate of the 1.88 acres (0.7 hectares) has brought to the table the conflicting interests of some of the families of the victims, who lost their loved ones, and the owners, who lost their homes. , some of whom survived the horror of that night.
Miami-Dade County Judge Michael Hanzman, who oversees the numerous legal claims related to the case, approved this Thursday the sale of the land.
The court will use the money to compensate the owners of the 136 destroyed apartments and the families affected by the tragedy.
Dubai, UAE-based real estate company DAMAC Properties has already offered $ 120 million for the land to build luxury apartments.
However, the court is accepting other competitive offers.
That is why some of the victims’ families are currently campaigning for donors who are willing to buy the land to prevent real estate development from taking place.
These families want a memorial to be built instead of a building to honor their dead.
“The blood of my sister and the other 97 victims runs like veins through that land”, says Cassondra Billedeau-Stratton’s sister, Ashley Dean.
“I imagine a memorial with gardens and waterfalls. A place Cassie herself would visit. A place where she could stand in the same place where she lost her life ”.
Dean is open to the possibility of finding some kind of compromise that would allow the construction of a memorial and, at the same time, a residential building on the site.
But not everyone agrees with that alternative.
“We do not build on the bodies of the dead”
Some families believe that the only viable option is to build a memorial that will occupy the entire land where the landslide occurred, that is, the 1.88 acres.
“In the United States we do not build on the bodies of the dead,” says Rabbi Lisa Shrem in dialogue with BBC Mundo.
She lost her best friend, Estelle Hedaya, the last victim to be identified in the landslide, 33 days after the landslide.
“We do not receive complete bodies. What we received were small pieces of their bodies. That means the rest is on that land, probably in the form of ashes. “
“According to Jewish law, it is very important that the body is respected as well as the soul. Those laws don’t allow us to build on graves“.
Shrem is leading efforts to raise the funds necessary for the land to be purchased by one person or group of people to build the memorial.
“We are looking for public and private funds. We call on everyone, from the president of the United States to the governor of Florida, generous entrepreneurs, philanthropists, companies, everyone who can collaborate ”.
“I lived the same nightmare”
Shrem traveled from New York to Surfside to support the cause of those who are not resigned to seeing a new building at the scene of the tragedy.
So did Monica Iken-Murphy, whose husband died in the Twin Towers bombings in September 2011.
She worked for the construction of the memorial that now exists in the place where the towers collapsed and is now supporting the families of the victims of the collapse in Surfside.
“I never recovered my husband’s remains and that’s one of the reasons why building a memorial was so important in my life. “
“I understand the suffering they are experiencing and that is why I want to help them,” he tells BBC Mundo.
In the New York bombings and the Champlain Towers South collapse, Iken-Murphy explains, there were “horrific deaths.”
“On both occasions people died from evil acts. Some victims of terrorism, others victims of corruption. Some went to work and never came home and here others went to sleep and never woke up ”.
“I lived the same nightmare that they are living now. We are going to build a memorial in the same place and not elsewhere ”.
“It was my little sister”
The problem is that if they don’t get the necessary funds, everything indicates that the sale of the land to a real estate developer will go ahead.
“I understand that it is difficult for families to accept what the judge has said,” says Charles Burkett, Mayor of Surfside, in dialogue with BBC Mundo.
“But I think the property is going to be sold and that a real estate company is going to build a building in that place”.
For now, “I am not sure where the memorial will be located.”
However, family members keep hope alive.
“There is enough land for a good building and enough land for a beautiful memorial,” notes Cassie’s sister.
“There is enough ground for all to find peace“. His greatest wish is for a generous donor to appear.
“Cassie was my little sister. She was a spiritual woman who loved the universe and was full of energy. I wish a memorial in the same place where she died. Everything is now in the hands of God ”.
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