NIGHT TERROR
Reader's Digest US|November 2021
In the middle of the night, as most of the tenants slept, much of a 12-story Florida condominium collapsed, killing scores and sending survivors fleeing for their lives. But amid the rubble and dust, eroes appeared as neighbor reached out to neighbor.
Kelli Kennedy

Alfredo Lopez and his wife, Marian, were asleep when the first thundering blast jolted them awake at 1:14 a.m. on Thursday, June 24. Moments later, a second boom, much louder than the first, shook the bed on the sixth floor of their Surfside, Florida, apartment.

Alfredo rushed to wake his 24-year old son, Michael, urging him to get dressed, before running to the balcony window. “All I could see was just white dust, very thick. I could barely see the balcony railing,” he says.

The lights cut out and the emergency alarm came on, warning the residents of the Champlain Towers South to evacuate. Alfredo thought about putting on sneakers, but his hands were shaking so badly he knew he couldn’t tie the laces. So he settled on sandals with straps.

Marian was disoriented. The 67-year-old fumbled for shoes as her husband pressed her impatiently. She put on a handy pair of slippers instead.

The Lopez family had lived for two decades on the street side of the condo building. Alfredo used to joke to his wife that she’d have to bury him there. That prediction almost came to pass. When he opened the front door to the hallway that night, half the building was gone. A jagged five-foot chunk of flooring barely left enough room to escape.

“There was no hallway, no ceiling, no apartments, no walls—nothing,” he says. In fact, he was staring at the moonlit ocean. Roughly half of the apartments in the 12-story, 136-unit complex had collapsed, pancaking one residence on top of another.

Anyone looking at the building from the vantage point of the beach would see entire rooms exposed, as the Washington Post described it, “like stage sets before an audience—bunk beds here, a couch there, a washing machine hanging from a ledge, mattresses stacked against a wall.”

Alfredo, 61, stood in his apartment’s threshold frozen in terror, unable to move. “I was petrified. I really thought, This is it. We are going to die.”

SOMETIMES, THE LINE between life and death is as seemingly random as an ocean or street view, an odd or even unit. While 98 residents died, most of the casualties lived in the units facing the ocean. Those facing the street managed to escape, albeit barely. With the elevator collapsed, the survivors descended the cracked stairwell that had separated from the wall. Along the way they helped neighbors they met for the first time and others they’d known for years, all “joined through this tragedy for forever now,” says Albert Aguero, who helped an 88-year-old stranger to safety.

While their escape felt agonizingly long, it all unfolded in mere minutes. In those perilous seconds, before the world knew of the carnage, they were fighting to survive.

“When I opened the staircase door and half the staircase was missing— at that point I knew we were racing against time to all get out as a family,” Albert says.

DOWN ON THE FIRST floor, in unit 111, a two-bedroom oceanfront apartment, recent college graduate Gabriel Nir had just finished a late-night workout and was in the kitchen cooking salmon. The rest of the family would normally be asleep, but his 15-year old sister, Chani, had returned from babysitting only minutes earlier and was in the shower, his dad was out of town, and his mom had just come home from an event.

They all heard the first thunderous rumble. They knew the building was undergoing construction and had been irritated by the incessant noise, but this felt different.

Sara Nir, their mother, ran to the lobby, asking the security guard what had happened. The guard was as clueless as she was. Neither of them knew that the pool deck had collapsed into the garage below.

Back in the Nirs’ kitchen, thick concrete dust came rushing into their apartment from the patio windows near the pool. The ground was shaking as 25-year-old Gabriel ran to the bathroom.

“We have to go now!” he screamed to his sister. He grabbed his phone, then he and Chani—wearing only a bathrobe, flip-flops, and a towel wrapped around her hair—fled their apartment and ran to the lobby.

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