January 8th Memorial ‘Embrace’ Completed

‘A Place of Contemplation & Reflection’

By Jay Gonzales

If there was one thing the organizers and the developers of Tucson’s January 8th Memorial knew, it was that they had to get it right.

There would be no margin for error despite the challenges of a worldwide pandemic, an unexpected archeologic dig, a mysterious fuel tank, a hard deadline and the emotion of an event that shattered a community.

The memorial, built adjacent to the historic Pima County Courthouse in El Presidio Plaza at 165 W. Alameda St., commemorates one of the most tragic days in the history of Tucson. On Jan. 8, 2011, a gunman killed six people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, outside a Safeway grocery store on the northwest side. The shooting occurred during a “Congress on Your Corner” event that Giffords was holding at the store at Ina and Oracle roads.

“Anytime you build a public project and there are many different people’s opinions – and this was going to be something that was not only for the people who are directly impacted, but for the entire community – there are lots of good ideas about how to do things,” said Crystal Kasnoff, who helped spearhead the effort as executive director of the January 8th Memorial Foundation formed about a year after the shooting.

“There were probably some sleepless nights in there,” Kasnoff said. “But it all worked out in the end because I think it’s exactly in the right place – a place where people can come and see democracy in action.”

The plaza is surrounded by city and county government buildings – Tucson City Hall on the west, the Pima County Superior Courthouse and Administration Building on the south and the historic courthouse and its iconic and recently renovated dome on the east.

Construction took just over a year, after some fits and stops due to the discovery of archeological artifacts on the site, an underground fuel tank that had to be removed and some utility lines that needed to be relocated, said Leigh-Ann Harrison, client services manager for Chasse Building Team, the Phoenix-based general contractor on the project. Jeff Dupuis was the project manager.

The construction cost was $3.5 million. There were roughly 34,000 man-hours put into the project by the contractor and 18 subcontractors. That does not include the design team made up of Chee Salette Architecture Office of Glendale, Calif., artist Rebeca Mendez, historical researcher Jackie Kain and AG Licht of Germany, which designed the lighting. The design team was chosen after a national competition.

They came up with the theme – “The Embrace”– in a design that includes gardens that capture the personalities of the victims, plus a water feature and soothing lighting for evening visits. The victims’ names are memorialized in the design and first responders are also honored.

“The memorial is a place of contemplation and reflection where visitors can honor the victims and survivors of this tragic event who were there to engage in democracy, and the first responders who stopped the violence and saved lives.” That’s how Salette described the memorial on its website. “Symbols telling this story are cut and etched into this collective wall of memories, forming constellations that speak of the people who died, survived and responded on that day, and recall Tucson’s history of resilience.”

The foundation raised nearly $3 million, as well as a significant amount of in-kind donations, Kasnoff said. Pima County and the City of Tucson donated the land in a process where the city deeded its portion of the land to Pima County, which then donated it for the memorial. Tucson Electric Power had to relocate some power lines that ran under the nearly one-acre site.

“The community just stepped up,” Kasnoff said. “The memorial was funded completely by private citizens and companies. No federal funds or state funds were used for the construction.”

The start of construction was delayed when some archeological artifacts were found on the site and had to be recovered. After construction began, the fuel tank was found, causing another delay. Construction became a race to the finish line – completion in time for the 10th anniversary commemoration. The finishing touches were literally put on in the last 24 hours before the virtual dedication, which only a handful of people attended because of the pandemic. Those included former U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, Rev. Joe Fitzgerald, Banner University Medical Center chaplain, and Kasnoff, along with first responders for a presentation of flags.

The memorial will open to the public when Pima County determines that COVID-19 protocols make it safe to do so. But although the public couldn’t see the memorial at the dedication, it didn’t mean there was room to maneuver for completion.

That it came together in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic made it even more remarkable that the dedication could be held with the project finished.

“We really believe that if we plan our work, the construction is much easier – and a lot of planning went into this,” Harrison said. “But I didn’t sleep a lot, to be perfectly honest, the last 30 days. This was our reputation. It was not an option” for the project to not be completed on time.

With an actual construction start date of Dec. 1, 2019, construction was just over three months in when COVID-19 shut down just about everything. But construction continued and there were more issues – the fuel tank, the power line and also a water line had to be moved.

“No one knew that the utilities were there,” Harrison said. “Then you find them and you’re like, ‘How do we adapt and move through it quickly?’ You just have to roll with it.”

They did and construction continued, although there were times it seemed like it was at a standstill. The designers continued to have input and make adjustments. COVID-19, as it turned out, was not the biggest challenge the builders faced, Harrison said.

“The plans had to be modified and adjusted along the way,” Harrison said. “It’s challenging when you’re working with an artistic designer. The end product is gorgeous and is probably going to win several awards. We definitely got a ton of gray hairs along the way.

“COVID obviously was a challenge. We were ridiculously lucky and obviously had a lot of angels watching us.”

As a longtime Tucson resident and Giffords’ childhood friend, Kasnoff said she is only now beginning to feel the longterm personal impact. 

“I feel a sense of accomplishment and relief for everyone who invested their time, energy and emotion in the project,” Kasnoff said. “I am a changed person for it. I think that being able to help facilitate what was important to the people involved in the tragedy was healing for myself. I will forever be changed for the resilience of those people.

“Anytime I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is think about my friend Gabby Giffords, because Gabby’s motto is ‘move ahead.’ And so she is, along with the other survivors and victims. The families are the most inspiring people that I have ever met, and I can only strive to be as strong as they are.”


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