Alfredo and Marian Lopez were asleep when the first clap of thunder woke them up. Moments later, a second boom, much louder than the first, rocked the couple's bed in their target Surfside, Florida apartment .
Alfredo, 61, rushed to wake his 24-year-old son Michael, urging him to get dressed quickly. Then he ran to the window.
"All I could see was white dust, very thick, " he said. "I could barely see the balcony railing.
The lights went out and the emergency alarm sounded, warning residents of the South Champlain towers to evacuate. Alfredo Lopez thought about putting on sneakers, but his hands were shaking so much with fear he knew he couldn't tie the laces.s. He opted for strappy sandals.
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Marian Lopez, 67, was confused. She was looking for shoes as her husband urged her to move quickly.
For two decades, the family lived across the street from the condo tower. Alfredo was joking with his wife for her to bury him there. On June 24, that almost happened.
When he opened the front door that night, half the building was gone. A five-foot piece of ragged floor left barely enough room to escape.
"There was no hallway, no ceiling, no apartments , no walls, nothing. "
Itremembered being frozen with terror.
"I was petrified. I really thought, 'This is it. We are going to die. '
Sometimes the line between life and death in such a calamity can be as seemingly random as if an apartment had an ocean view or a street view. While 126 residents, mostly units with ocean views, were among the missing nine days later, many more narrowly escaped.
With the elevator collapsing, the survivors descended the cracked stairwell that had separated from the wall, helping neighbors they first encountered and helping out. 'others whom they had known for years. They have all been "accompanied by this tragedy forever," said Albert Aguero, a resident, who helped an 88-year-old stranger to safety.
As their escape was terribly long, it took place in a few minutes. In these moments perilux, before the world knew only the 22 people who perished and the many missing, they were fighting to survive.
"When I opened the door to the stairs and half of the stairs was missing, at that point I know we are running against the clock to all go out as a family "said Aguero.
Downstairs on the first floor, rece A college graduate, Gabriel Nir had just finished a late night workout and was in his kitchen cooking salmon. The rest of the family were sleeping normally, but her 15 year old sister had just returned from babysitting and was in the shower, her father was out of town, and her mother had just returned from an event.
They all heard the first threatening rumble. They knew the building was under construction and he had been irritated by the incessant noise, but it sounded different - more thunderous.
Sara Nir, Gabriel's mother, ran towards thehall, asking security guard if they had seen anything.
Back in the kitchen, concrete dust invaded their apartment from the patio windows near the pool . The floor was shaking as 25-year-old Gabriel ran to the bathroom.
"We have to go now! " He shouted at his sister. They ran to the lobby, where their mother urged the security guard to call 911. The guard was too shaken to remember the address, so Gabriel called.
"Hurry up. -you, hurry up, "he begged. the dispatcher.
Outside, he saw that the car bridge had collapsed in the parking garage. The car alarms were sounding, the emergency lights were flashing, and water from broken pipes was quickly filling the garage.
He ran towards the hall, where the cloud of dust made it difficult to see. Residents upstairs were rushing for the door screaming, many still in their pajamas. A man pushed a stroller.
It was getting harder and harder to breathe. The growl intensified as Gabriel ushered his mother and sister into the street.
"Run, run! " He shouted.
Des stones and other debris threw him in the head as he turned around. It would be a sight to haunt him a few days later.
"I saw the building turn to white dust," he said. "I 've heard people screaming.
His first instinct was to go back inside. "I have to make sure everyone is okay, " he thought.
But it was too late.
On the 11th floor, Aguero stared in disbelief at the gaping holes in the elevator shaft.
Gabriel Nir, who lived on the first floor of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building, poses for a portrait outside the hotel where he is stayingurn now in Surfside, Fla. on Friday, July 2, 2021. He had just completed a late night workout and was in the The rest of the family was sleeping normally, but his 15 year old sister had just returned from babysitting and was in the shower, her dad was out of town and her mom had just returned from an event. They all heard the first roar of thunder. They knew the building was under construction and had been irritated by the incessant noise, but it was different. (AP Photo / Gerald Herbert)
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Half of the the apartment has been razed to the ground. The power was cut off. Aguero wondered if hehad been struck by lightning.
The 42-year-old former college athlete was on vacation in New Jersey with his wife Janette, 14-year-old daughter Athena and son Justin Willis, 22, a college baseball player .
His son thought a plane had crashed into the building. There was no time to speak as they rushed up the stairwell, wondering if they could get down 11 floors in time.
"He didn 't 'There was no time to react. Just make your move, "Aguero remembers.
Every time they came down a floor, they would shout the number of the house. floor. It was a small victory, a story closer to survival.
Moving as fast as they could, none looked back. Instead, they called each other frequently.
"Justin, are you still here?
"Baby, are you okay?
When they reached the fifth floor, Janette heard pounding in the thstaircase. She opened the frozen door and a few other terrified residents joined them on the stairs, including a young woman hugging an elderly woman.
She asked Aguero and her son to help her out. elderly woman, what they did. There were cracks and holes in the stairwell, but nothing insurmountable.
Still, the pace was too strong for the old woman.
"Don't worry about me. I'm 88. I've had a good life," she said, gesturing to them.
But Alber t Aguero was determined . They were all going to make it out alive.
"Everything will be fine," he reassured her. "We'll make sure you reach 89.
On the ninth floor, Raysa Rodriguez and her neighbor Yadira Santos huddled in the hallway, along with Santos' 10-year-old son Kai and their Maltese puppy. They had already seen that the other half of the building was gone and assumed that the stairwells were there.were too.
She thought their only escape was to wait on a balcony until the fire engines arrived. In the chaos, his brother Fred called - he had rushed to the building and was standing outside. He kept repeating the same urgent warning.
"Get out of here, get out! " He begged.
There is no The stairs are gone, she tells him.
A firefighter grabbed Fred's phone and gave a frightening command. "You must find an exit.
They decided to try the stairwell again. When they reached the eighth floor, they found Ada Lopez, 84, waiting with her walker. Santos had called to warn him.
Rodriguez rushed to see if there was a way out as the others helped old Lopez down the stairwell. , meeting the Aguero family and Albert Lopez 's clan along the way.
But when Rodriguez reached the fireplace in the closed parking lot, she turned around.
"I knew it was possible to be electrocuted ", Rodriguez recalls.
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They rushed to the second floor where someone one had left his the apartment doors open. Outside, from the balcony, they signaled the rescue teams outside and a lifting basket brought them to safety.
Back in the stairwell, Alfredo Lopez was in a panic. His wife, in her panic, had chosen to wear slippers to navigate their apocalyptic nightmare.
"What were you thinking? " He asked her, mBut he knew she really wasn't.
When they reached what could have been the second or third floor, 1006's Susana Alvarez was knocking on the cage door. 'staircase, her 88 year old neighbor Esther Gorfinkel next to her.
As Alvarez fled her apartment, she knocked one last time on her neighbors' door, at the Using his cell phone lamp in the dark. From the destroyed side of the building, she heard screams.
"Help me, help me! " She heard a tearful woman screaming.
"He there were people alive in there, "Alvarez would later say.
Alvarez, 62, had just brought her beloved cat Mia to the apartment building a week ago. In a few days, she was planning to move her mother into the apartment. Alvarez is the only member of the family left to care for his mother, who is in pain.Advanced Alzheimer's Adie.
As she and Gorfinkel walked downstairs, Alvarez stopped, thinking of Hilda Noriega on the sixth floor. She was like family. They had spent many vacations together. Noriega and her mother were best friends since their days in Cuba.
"Can I save her, can I go get her? " She thought frantically. "But I had seen the building before, so I continued.
Gorfinkel complained that they were moving too fast, his knee aching terribly. Without thinking, Lopez threw it over his shoulder and pressed it down.
"The five of us became like a trailer," he said.
Alvarez couldn't stop talking about the cat.
"Forget the cat," Lopez shouted in a moment of frustration. "We have to go.
When they got to the flooded garage, one car was on top of another, crushed by a giant concrete slab.
Alvarez panicked. She worealso slippers. It was too high to climb the rubble pile on the pool deck. The Aguero family had just arrived on the pool deck in front of them, with father and son hoisting Gorfinkel to safety.
"I can't do it ", he thought -it. Her hands were covered in blood, but she had no scratches and no idea where it was coming from.
In this video image From Sunday, June 27, 2021, Alfredo Lopez shares how his family escaped the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla. Lopez and his wife, Marian, right, were sleeping when the first thunder clap burst wake them up. Alfredo rushed to wake up his 24 year old son, Michael. When Alfredo opened the front door that night, half the building was gone. A five-inch ragged piece of floor feet barely left enough room to escape. "There was no hallway, no ceiling, no apartments, no walls, nothing. " The 61-year-old froze in terror, unable to move. "I was petrified. I really thought, 'This is it. We're going to die '. " (AP Photo / Stacey Plaisance)
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A few days later, Gorfinkel called the Agueros to thank them for saving his life. Alvarez, too, is adamant she would not have survived without the Lopez family.
"Thanks to him and his son, we were able to scale this rubble.
A few days later, the Agueros and the Nir and Lopez families are safe and sound. They hug their children and siblings more closely, knowing that many of their neighbors are gone.
Forright now the survivors do not have a home. Their property is gone. Clothes, computers, cars, even preion drugs. It's embarrassing, they say, but it doesn't really matter. They are alive.
At night, they still hear the screams, and the terror returns.
"The first few days I had horrible survivor's guilt., "said Lopez, a deeply religious man.
Gabriel Nir has trouble sleeping. He tries to stay busy, to push back on guesswork.
"It's like a virus. It never goes away," he said sadly. "I wish I could have done more ... These people who are missing, they are not coming back.
His family is crammed into a given hotel room nearby. Her voice is still filled with adrenaline. A few days later, he talks like he's fast forwarded, cut off, and frantic. Like his escape.
Nir says his near-death experience has himlearned something valuable.
"Check your loved ones ... it's only a lifetime, " he said. "You don't know what's going to happen, today, tomorrow, the next hour.
Alvarez, too, is filled with grief. Hilda Noriega, her mother's best friend, is among the dead.
She has not been in bed since that night, cannot bring herself to crawl under the covers. She sleeps in a chair instead.
"The people in the rubble, I could hear them. Some were screaming " help, "she said.
"This will haunt me forever. I will never forget it. "