FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida, USA— Alfredo López and his wife Marian were asleep when the first roar shook them. Moments later, a second crash, even louder, shook his bed in his sixth-floor apartment.
Alfredo ran to wake up his son Michael, 24, asking him to get dressed before running to the balcony window.
“All I could see was a very thick white powder. I couldn’t see the balcony railing. ” The lights went out and the alarm sounded, warning residents of Champlain Towers South to evacuate.
The López family – Alfredo is 61 years old, his wife Marian 67 – lives on the street side of the building, which is partially intact, but when he opened the apartment door half of the building had collapsed. A five foot (meter) patch of ground left barely room to escape.
“There was no corridor, no roof, no apartments, no walls, nothing.”
Sometimes the line between life and death seems as arbitrary as an ocean view or a street view, an odd or even numbered apartment. While 126 residents, mostly in apartments facing the ocean, are among those missing nine days after the landslide, many more escaped. With the elevator collapsed, the survivors descended the ladder that had separated from the wall, assisting neighbors they had known for the first time and others they had known for years in the descent.
The couple were staying in front of the building when they captured the images, minutes before the building collapsed.
Although the escape seemed agonizingly long, it lasted only minutes. In those dangerous moments, before the world found out about the more than 22 dead and the many missing, they were fighting to survive.
“When I opened the door to the staircase and half had fallen, at that moment I knew that we were in a race against time for the family to escape”, said Albert Aguero, who helped an 88-year-old stranger out.
On the first floor, Gabriel Nir, a recent college graduate, had finished exercising and was in the kitchen cooking salmon.
The family heard a crash. They knew there was construction work going on in the building and the incessant noise had disturbed them. But this time it felt different.
The family ran into the hall. Once outside, they noticed that the roof of the garage had collapsed. Car alarms were howling, hazard lights were flashing, and water was rapidly covering the parking lot, where pipes had snapped. A cloud of dust made vision difficult. Residents of other floors came out screaming, many of them still in pajamas.
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It was difficult to breathe. The rumblings intensified and Gabriel pushed his mother and sister out into the street.
“Run, run!” He yelled at them.
Pebbles and small pieces of debris hit his head when he turned around in time to see an image that still haunts him.
“I saw the building turn to white dust,” he said. “I heard people screaming.”
“I have to go back. I have to see that everyone is well, “he said.
But he knew it was too late.
On the eleventh floor, Aguero stared in disbelief at the gaps in the elevator shaft.
Half of the adjoining apartment had collapsed. There was not electricity.
Aguero, 42, of New Jersey, was on vacation with his wife, Janette, their 14-year-old daughter Athena and their 22-year-old son Justin Willis, who plays college baseball.
There was barely time to speak when they ran to the stairs, wondering if they would make it down the 11 stories.
“There was no time to react. Just start ”, Aguero said.
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Every time they descended one floor, they screamed the number, a small survival victory, one floor closer to freedom.
On the ninth floor, Raysa Rodriguez and her neighbor Yadira Santos met in the hallway with Santos’ son, Kai, 10, and their Maltese puppy. They had already seen that half the building had collapsed and they presumed that the ladder had also fallen.
Rodriguez thought that the only way to escape was to wait on a balcony for the arrival of firefighters. Amid the chaos, his brother Fred called – he had run into the building and was standing outside. Fred repeated the same urgent warning over and over.
“Get out of the building, get out,” he told her.
They decided to try the ladder. When they reached the eighth floor, they found 84-year-old Ada Lopez waiting with her cane. Santos had called her to let her know.
Rodriguez stepped forward to see if there was a way out while the others helped the old woman down the stairs, where they met Albert Lopez and his clan.
But when Rodriguez reached the flooded garage, he turned around.
“I knew I could be electrocuted,” she said.
The group ran back to the second floor where someone had left their apartment door open. From the balcony they drew the attention of rescue teams outside and a hydraulic platform lowered them safely.
Days later, the Agueros, the Nir and the Lopezes are all fine. They hug their children and siblings, knowing that many of their neighbors will never return, they will never be able to hug their loved ones again.
Steven Rosenthal, a resident of the Champlain Towers building, was rescued from the balcony of his apartment after the collapse. Details in the video.
The Nir and Lopez are homeless. Everything disappeared. Clothes, computers, cars, even prescriptions. It’s inconvenient, they say, but it doesn’t really matter. They are alive.
At night, they still hear the screams. And the scene returns to their minds.
“The first few days, I had a horrible survivor syndrome,” said Lopez, who is highly religious.
Gabriel Nir has a hard time sleeping. Try to keep busy so you don’t think about what might have happened.
“I wish I had done more … those missing people are not coming back,” he says.