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Artists and Surfside residents work to honor and remember victims of building collapse

"We tend to forget so easily, so I hope people will be able to look at it and feel what it was like to be there," said one artist who worked outside the building site.
Image: Muralist Kyle Holbrook paints a mural in honor of the victims of the Champlain Tower building collapse on July 14, 2021 in Miami.
Kyle Holbrook paints a mural Wednesday in Miami in honor of the victims of the Champlain Towers South condominium building collapse.Saul Martinez / for NBC News

SURFSIDE, Fla. — The memorial to victims of the collapsed Champlain Towers South building was left in disarray after intense windy rainstorms blew through Miami and flooded streets in recent days.

The colorful flowers laid next to markers with victims' names and others pushed through a chain-link fence bearing residents' photos have turned into a pile of stems and mushy petals. Personal objects left there — stuffed animals, books, prayer candles, children's drawings, a bicycle, shoes and even a diploma — have become waterlogged.

The intense weather typical of summer in South Florida has made it difficult for Leo Soto and two other artists who are working on projects to memorialize the victims of the deadly building collapse. Soto has struggled in the wind and rain to clean and maintain the tributes many people have left for the victims. Meanwhile, Roberto Marquez, a painter from Dallas, and Kyle Holbrook, a street artist and muralist in Miami, are working to paint public tributes commemorating the tragedy.

All of them said they remained committed to finishing and maintaining their work.

Leo Soto places flowers at the makeshift memorial near the partly collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla., on June 28.Maria Alejandra Cardona / The New York Times via Redux

Soto, a Florida Institute of Technology student who set out to create the memorial near the collapsed building site, and other volunteers began to clean up the site Wednesday. They will redecorate it with fresh flowers from local florists Thursday. They plan to hold a vigil at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

"It just became very relatable and personal to me," said Soto, who went to a print shop shortly after the collapse to print photos of the victims. "I was looking at all these names and seeing people that looked like my mom, my grandma, so I just wanted to help. And the memorial just took on a life of its own after that."

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he had spoken to victims and their families about preserving the memorial. They discussed having a portrait made of the memorial, having a large photo printed or even removing the chain link fence and including it in a larger memorial.

"Those are just some of the ideas that I've talked about with family members and others," Burkett said Wednesday, "because obviously we want to make sure that this is not forgotten."

The memorial outside the site isn't the only effort to honor the victims.

Marquez traveled to Surfside from Dallas the day after the collapse to volunteer to help search for victims. Officials declined his offer, so he went to Home Depot and built two large canvases and began to paint an emotionally raw scene reminiscent of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," a cubist masterpiece that depicts the Spanish town in ruins after a 1937 bombing by Nazi Germany.

For the past two weeks, Marquez has worked from 6:30 a.m. until nightfall — weather permitting — on two paintings that depict elements of the building's collapse. Covered by tarps and a beach umbrella, he has worked next to the memorial to depict a woman being pulled from the rubble, a clock stopped at the time the building collapsed, a priest clutching a cross, a first responder's ladder descending into the debris.

Roberto Marquez's painting in Surfside, Fla.Stacey Plaisance / AP
Roberto Marquez paints near the site of the collapsed condominium building in Surfside, Fla., on Friday.Bobby Caina Calvan / AP

It's a powerful image made all the stronger for its proximity to the scene. Viewers can hear the excavators digging just behind the canvas, which leans against the same chain link fence the memorial is built around. Marquez, who temporarily returned to Dallas to rest and pick up more paint, said being at the scene inspired him further — whether it was because of the emotion shared by crying visitors or the building site's dust that blew by, making it hard to breathe.

"I hope people will be able to see it down the road and remember what happened there," Marquez said over the phone. "We tend to forget so easily, so I hope people will be able to look at it and feel what it was like to be there."

Marquez said he would like the painting to help raise money for the victims and to serve as a reminder of the residents who died. Soto is working with the local art community to find a place to store the painting until Marquez can return to finish it.

"I would like it to stay where the public in general can see it. It's a memorial," Marquez said. "But if that's not possible, then maybe a gallery somewhere in Miami will take it."

Meanwhile, Holbrook has completed a mural in Wynwood, a neighborhood famous for its graffiti art and murals, showing hands reaching together.

Holbrook said he often spent time on the beach in Surfside, a quiet place where he could sketch his next designs. Soon after the building collapsed, he said, he got permission to paint the mural and set to work, choosing Wynwood because of its heavy tourist traffic.

"I thought it was my duty to do something large just to show support for the families," said Holbrook, who finished the mural Wednesday. "I thought it was important to have something in Miami that could be a memorial, a place for healing, a place so no one will forget."

Kyle Holbrook paints a mural Wednesday in Miami in honor of the victims of the Champlain Towers South condominium building collapse.Saul Martinez / for NBC News

Sometimes he worked in the dead of night because it was the only time he could avoid intense South Florida squalls. The heavy rain meant he often had to repaint sections, and sudden bursts of lightning forced him to flee his hydraulic lift.

But his work is a bright and hopeful image.

"There's geometric shapes that are symbolic or representative of the building collapsing, and the hands are there of all different colors, sizes and shapes, coming together to be representative of the entire community," he said.

While the mural in Wynwood remains secure and more work is planned on the memorial and on Marquez's painting, there are also lingering questions about what will be done with the land where the condo once stood.

Some families have expressed a desire for the site to be turned into a park, Burkett said; others have said they would like to return to the land and rebuild. He said many have also discussed turning the site of the main collapse into a permanent memorial and rebuilding the part of the building that was demolished.

Michael Goldberg, the lawyer appointed to act as the receiver for the victims and their families, estimated that the land is worth $100 million to $130 million. That could be an expensive price for local, state or federal authorities to pay to turn it into a permanent park or memorial.

"I think there is a clear delineation at the property where the buildings that collapsed and claimed so many lives is," Burkett said, "and I think that that portion of the property, according to what I'm getting from the family, absolutely should become some sort of memorial site. Because it is, as I've said before, a holy site in many respects."