A report by Timothy Bella for The Washington Post.
The famous Southernmost Point landmark in Key West, Fla. — a colorful, giant buoy that reads “90 miles to Cuba” —suffered extensive damage early Saturday after vandals placed a discarded Christmas tree in front of it and set it on fire, police said.
The popular destination, which draws scores of tourists,including Cuban Americans who visit and reflect on the country some still call home,was charred sometime between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, investigators said.
No arrests had been made as of Saturday afternoon, but authorities said they are seeking two White male suspects on charges of criminal mischief. The suspects, who have not been publicly named, were captured lighting the buoy on fire on a webcam dedicated to filming the Southernmost Point 24 hours a day.
Alyson Crean, a Key West police spokeswoman, told The Washington Post that the investigation is ongoing. She said the buoy blaze was extinguished shortly after the Key West Fire Department arrived on the scene.
“The fire caused extensive damage to the iconic landmark,” she said in a statement.
If it’s determined that the amount of damage to the buoy exceeds $1,000, then the criminal mischief offense would be considered a third-degree felony in Florida and punishable by up to five years imprisonment as well as a fine up to $5,000, according to state attorneys. Total damage of less than $1,000 could also mean potential jail time and fines, state law says.
The Miami Herald was the first to report the news.
At 12 feet tall and seven feet wide, the Southernmost Point landmark stands 18 feet above sea level on an island that touts itself as the southernmost point of the continental United States. The marker holds special meaning to the Cuban community.In addition to being the closest many exiles and their children get to their homeland, it is also a reminder of those whorisked their lives trying to defect from Cuba on the treacherous 90-mile journey by boat to the U.S.
Established in 1983 as a tourist attraction in Key West, the Southernmost Point buoy is regarded as one of the most photographed and visited spots in the country.
Hours after Key West rang in the new year with its renowned party on Duval Street, several groups of people arrived at the buoy to take selfies in front of the landmark early Saturday, according to archived screenshots of a webcam run by Two Oceans Digital, a local marketing company. The webcam features an online archive that stores images from footage taken in the last 24 hours, the Herald reported.
But at around 3:20 a.m., two White men wearing shorts and backward caps appear at the landmark, according to webcam images. And they weren’t alone: At the base of the buoy, there was a discarded Christmas tree.
After taking photos of themselves in front of the Southernmost Point, they hang out for a couple minutes until they bend over to the Christmas tree. That’s when it appears the men set the tree on fire, causing it to go up in flames at about 3:24 a.m.
Even though the fire department arrived swiftly to put out the blaze, the damage had already been done to the Southernmost Point, photos show.
While it’s unclear what restoration efforts would be needed on the buoy, it would not be the first time the landmark got some work done to it. After Hurricane Irma slammed Key West in 2017, the Southernmost Point buoy’s paint job was restored from the damage it suffered in the storm.
“For Key West to really recover, we had to have this monument back painted again so people could come here again and take their picture and feel like something special when they visited Key West,” said then Key West Mayor Craig Cates, according to CBS Miami.
As the webcam photos began to spread across social media, many observers called on the suspects to go to jail for their “disgusting” actions on the Southernmost Point. One critic noted that the webcam images might make finding the men much easier.
Police are asking anyone with information on the incident to come forward.