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Family recounts narrow escape from Florida condo collapse

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The Aguero family managed to escape the catastrophe in Surfside, Florida./AFP
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Jun 30, 2021 - 08:25 AM

SURFSIDE — In the early hours of Thursday, Janette Aguero woke up with a start — she heard a thunderous roar. Half of her apartment block had just collapsed in one of the worst urban catastrophes in US history.

“It was like an earthquake,” Aguero, 46, told AFP.

“We, my husband and I, were sleeping, and we were woken up by the building shaking — very violently, aggressively.”

Through her window, all she could see was a thick cloud of dust.

Aguero, her husband Albert and their two children were in town for a week’s vacation, staying at her in-laws’ place on the 11th floor of the beachfront Champlain Towers South condo complex.

Surfside is a town of 6,000 near Miami Beach that is famous for white sand beaches that lure well-to-do tourists and retirees. It also has a sizeable Jewish community.

Champlain Towers South is a 12-story concrete structure built in 1981, with 136 units that are used by their owners or rented out.

The units facing the sea are the ones that suddenly ripped away from the rest of the building for reasons still to be determined.

The Agueros were lucky — their apartment faced the street, away from the ocean.

Albert Aguero shouted to the emergency personnel, who had arrived at the scene in about 10 minutes, and asked if the family should try to escape.

“Yes — if you can get out, get out!” he was told.

‘So many emotions’ 

The Agueros’ son, 22-year-old Justin Willis, said as the family left the apartment, they started to understand the severity of the disaster.

“We look to our left, the units’ doors were caved in. Half the hallway — you can start to see outside towards the beach,” he said.

The staircase was still there but “kind of destroyed, every other step broken or missing,” added Willis, who plays on the baseball team at the University of Connecticut.

The harrowing descent to the ground 11 floors below seemed endless.

“You don’t think of falling off to the right. I’m just looking at my feet and going on,” said Willis.

Operating in full survival mode, the Aguero family reached the garage level of the building, found a break in all the debris and ran to the beach, where Janette Aguero, finally feeling safe, broke down and sobbed.

“There were so many emotions,” she said.

Reason for hope 

As the Agueros were counting their blessings, firefighters were using ladders to pluck other residents from their balconies.

And the painstaking search for survivors began.

During the wee hours, a teenager was pulled alive from the rubble. And a first toll was given: one person confirmed dead and 99 unaccounted for.

After dawn on Thursday, a Surfside community center a few blocks away was transformed into a meeting place for relatives of those missing. Survivors like the Agueros went there for information about where they could stay.

Volunteers showed up with food, water and bedding. Personal hygiene kits were handed out, and relatives told authorities about those who might have been in the building when it collapsed.

Bettina Obias, who is without word of her aunt and uncle, provided authorities with a sample of her DNA.

“They need it to verify. They want to know whose body is whose family,” she told AFP.

Rescue operations were hampered by storms and by a fire burning underground, finally put out on Saturday.

The death toll slowly ticked up — four confirmed dead on Friday, and 11 as of midday Tuesday.

But hopes of finding any more survivors in the debris have dwindled as the days go by, even as heavy machinery groans with the work of lifting piles of concrete and nearly 300 firefighters, some with sniffer dogs, look for signs of life.


At the weekend, questions quickly mounted about the structural integrity of the building, which was undergoing construction work to obtain safety recertification.

A study from 2020 concluded that the building had experienced slight subsidence in the 1990s. But the author of the study told CNN said he did not know if the building’s collapse could have been predicted.

An October 2018 report released by city officials revealed fears of “major structural damage” in the complex, from the concrete slab under the pool deck to the columns and beams in the parking garage.

And Jean Wodnicki, the chair of the condo association, described “accelerating” damage to the building since then, in a letter to residents in April.

Janette Aguero told AFP the garage “always looked kind of rundown.”

“It’s not in the best shape but you don’t think any further. OK, there’s cracks, paint that’s chipped, flooding all the time,” she said.

President Joe Biden is to visit the site of the tragedy on Thursday.

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