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'I Felt The Entire Room Shake.' Partial Building Collapse In Surfside Leaves One Dead, Many Injured

 View of a partial building collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside
Daniel Rivero
View of the partial building collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside

This post has been updated.

The partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside early Thursday morning sounded at first like thunder, like a low-flying military plane or like a sudden rush of wind. Two, or even three, sounds boomed through the late-night sky as the building collapsed — according to nearby witnesses and people in the building.

As the smoke cleared, at least one death has been confirmed by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue with several injured, and many more expected, due to the collapse. As least 99 people are believed to be missing following the tragic incident.

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Albert Aguero was on vacation with his wife and two teenage children. They came down a few days ago from New Jersey to stay at the Champlain Towers South building.

“It woke me up. I felt the entire room shake. [My wife] jumped out of bed to check on the kids. They were okay. We looked out the balcony. It was all a cloud of smoke,” Aguero said.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue arrived at the scene and Aguero shouted down whether he should try to escape, and he was told yes.

We still didn't know how urgent it was. When we stepped outside of the apartment, I looked to the left and the roof was completely caved in on the apartment to our left. Looked forward, which is where the elevators are, and it was just the shaft in a hole,” he said.

The question of life and potential death came within a few feet of the family.

“If that’s another maybe fifteen feet to the left, we lose our apartment and I’m not standing here right now,” said Justin Willis, Aguero’s son.

View of the partial building collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside
Daniel Rivero
View of the partial building collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside

The family rushed down a partially-collapsed staircase, helping an elderly woman escape on the third floor.

“Once we finally made it out to the sand and we actually could look at the damage, and what had actually happened, I think that’s when it kind of hit home,” said Aguero.

Ann Citron was just about to go to sleep at the Champlain Towers North building, where she was staying with her husband and two friends. The group just drove down from Tampa on Wednesday.

“There was a huge rumble, like a military plane was passing like really low. And then another bigger rumble. And then the alarms went off and I went to the window to see, but we were on the side, so we can't see anything. And then we go to the staircase and there's all this dust in the staircase,” she said.

The group fled to the street level and everything was in a state of chaos.

“Fire trucks were pulling up and these people outside and people just saying they were trapped,” she said, fighting through tears. “Those people in the balconies with flashlights, with their phones just waiting to be rescued, calling out that they couldn't get down.”

Dust from the collapse could be seen for several square blocks. Neighbors could be seen wiping it off of their cars early Thursday morning.

 A man near the Champlain Towers South collapse site wipes dust off his car
Daniel Rivero
A man near the Champlain Towers South collapse site wipes dust off his car

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said 35 people were assisted in evacuating the building after collapse. Rescue and search efforts are ongoing and could take up to a week to be complete.

Survivors and neighbors in nearby buildings were evacuated to a community center in Surfside, where authorities are trying to help identify and locate missing people. The Red Cross is assisting in trying to find hotels and temporary housing for those impacted.

A stroke of dumb luck might well have saved Eric Zion’s life. He lives in the Champlain Towers South building and he said he got back from a trip at about 10:30pm Wednesday night and, for some reason, the lights were shut off in his apartment. He doesn't know why his power was out but it pushed him to make a decision that he and his wife were going to rent a hotel room in the neighborhood just for the night. They planned to figure out the power situation in the morning.

“We drove out at like maybe 11:30ish, went to the hotel, took everything out, and then at approximately 12:30am, I came back to return my car to the parking lot. Then I went upstairs to get my scooter and I was probably in the apartment for 20, 30 minutes so I probably left like 12:50, close to 1:00,” Zion said.

The building collapsed at about 1:15am.

I went to the hotel. I don't know anything happened until I saw, like messages come up on my phone from people in the neighborhood,” said Zion. “I was like, ‘No way. I was just there.’ Like, how did that happen? So then I took my scooter and I came here and I'm like, 'What?' And I was literally just there when I put my car in, the whole garage collapsed. So my car is totaled. But like, you know, it could have been me.”

Nicolas Fernandez owned unit 803 of the Champlain Towers South. Two friends from Argentina and their young daughter were staying there but the apartment is gone. He has tried calling his friends all morning, but no one picked up the phone.

“We called the whole morning but they just don’t reply,” he said. “We don’t know if they’re still there. I’m going to stay positive and think that they are.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care, as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics for the station. Contact Verónica at vzaragovia@wlrnnews.org
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