One family’s escape from collapsing Florida condo: ‘Run, fast!’

‘I looked behind me, and I just saw nothing’

Brittany Shammas
Friday 02 July 2021 17:00
<p>Part of the Champlain Towers collapsed on 24 June</p>

Part of the Champlain Towers collapsed on 24 June

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The first thing she noticed was the knocking.

Then came a crash so loud, Sara Nir wondered whether a wall had come down somewhere in Champlain Towers South.

Startled and up later than usual after an event, she put down her phone at 1:14am and made the short walk to the security guard in the lobby. The guard mentioned hearing the strange noises, too, but was unsure what to make of them.

Ms Nir was still standing at the desk when a metallic boom reverberated across the building’s 12 floors.

Through the lobby’s wall of windows, Ms Nir saw cars jutting out of the ground, some standing nearly upright, and the pool deck caved in. An earthquake, she thought, dashing back toward Unit 111, toward her kids.

Gabe, 25, a night owl, had just pulled salmon from the oven, while 15-year-old Chani was fresh out of the shower. The two stood gaping at their mother from the doorway of the apartment, drawn out by the commotion.

“I said, ‘Run, fast!’” Sara recalled. “And Chani looked at me. She said: ‘I have a bathrobe. Look at me.’ I said: ‘I don’t care! You need to run.’”

Just moments after the family fled the building, Champlain Towers South crumbled to the ground, leaving at least 18 dead and more than 140 unaccounted for. In the most complete account yet of their escape from the doomed Surfside, Florida, condominium building, the Nirs described a frantic sprint out of the lobby into empty streets, clouds of thick white dust billowing behind.

Chani had only her robe, flip-flops and the towel wrapped around her hair. Sara was empty-handed, her wallet and cellphone forgotten inside the apartment. Gabe carried only his iPhone. At 1:19am, he used it to make what was probably one of the first calls to police.

They ran without understanding what had happened to their home of six months – was it an earthquake? A tsunami? – and struggled to explain to the 911 dispatcher.

“I looked behind me, and I just saw nothing,” Gabe said. “It looked like just white dust. You literally could feel the ground shaking – like, I don’t know how to describe it. It was so loud, a huge rumble.”

By 1:25am, according to EMS audio, much of the Champlain complex had crashed to the ground. Unit 111, with a patio overlooking the pool and a large living area Sara filled with flowers, had vanished in a tangled heap of concrete, metal and glass.

A week later, the family still isn’t sleeping.

The oceanfront apartment was supposed to be a fresh start for the Nirs, who had recently relocated from Atlanta to join the thriving Jewish community in Surfside.

Sara and husband Eyal, parents of six children, had spent a few months renting in nearby Aventura before deciding to look for a place in Surfside last winter.

At Champaign Towers South, they toured a pair of two-bedroom, two-bathroom units for rent: Unit 111 and Penthouse 4.

The penthouse was furnished, with views of the Atlantic’s turquoise waves. But Sara didn’t like the black marble in the bathroom, and there was no washer or dryer. Unit 111 faced the pool instead of the ocean, but it did have laundry. Plus, it was bigger – more room for when their adult kids came home.

“My husband said, ‘Maybe you want the ocean view,’” Ms Nir said. “And I said no.”

It was a small decision, but one that might have saved their lives. When part of the tower fell last week, much of the penthouse apartment went with it. A torn-away wall opened a bedroom to the sky, revealing a white bunk bed. The woman who lived there has not been found.

The Nirs warmed to their apartment immediately. It housed a long table with enough chairs for the whole family. A sliding-glass door looked out to the pool, and a picture of the beach hung on a living-room wall. When Gabe walked in for the first time, he thought, “this place is amazing”.

Slowly, though, problems with the building began to emerge.

“I was telling my mom how this place is great, the house is great, everything is great,” Gabe said. “But then slowly, when you live there, you start to notice the small creaks and the small issues the building had.”

There was the water that pooled in the parking garage after rain, he said, and the uneven pool-deck pavement. Sometimes when he stepped on it, water would seep through the cracks.

Twice he rode the elevator to the penthouse level and walked through an unlocked door to the roof. Tar covered a portion of it, and huge buckets of the stuff were all over the place, along with scattered cigarettes and bags of chips.

The rooftop views, though, were impressive. Gabe took a video on his cellphone, panning to capture the ocean and the Intracoastal. The last time was 10 June – two weeks before Champlain Towers South fell to the ground.

Fleeing the faltering building that night, the Nirs yelled at the security guard to call 911. The stunned guard asked for the address, reaching for a pen and paper.

“I said, ‘Listen, forget about it,’” Gabe said, and he hurried away.

The crash of the pool deck caving in had brought other residents to the lobby. As they fled, the Nirs said, they saw a man running to the doors, pushing a stroller. A couple was near the elevators, the woman struck speechless.

They surged out the front entrance and onto a quiet Collins Avenue.

The dust was everywhere, like a sudden sandstorm, burning the Nirs’ eyes and throats. Gabe pulled his shirt to his face. Over a six-minute call, he remembers telling the 911 operator, “You guys need to come here ASAP.”

Now what? Sara was shaking and struggling to breathe, the panic gripping her. They knocked at the doors of nearby houses. A man with a dog turned the family away; a woman gave Sara a glass of water.

They rang Eyal some 600 miles away in Atlanta, where he had traveled for work. He awoke around 1:30am to his wife saying something had happened at the apartment building, an earthquake, and she had no wallet, no money. He lay awake the rest of the night.

“What can you do?” Eyal said. “Somebody’s 10 hours from you and you don’t know what’s going on. So. I tell you, I don’t wish it on nobody.”

Gabe, Chani and Sara made their way to the Surfside Community Centre, about a half-mile away. The oceanfront facility with a water park, usually a site for splashing kids and beach get-togethers, was transformed into a family reunification area – though there would be few reunions.

The Nirs joined the other Champlain Towers evacuees who had escaped with their lives and little else.

The hotel housing the Nirs and other survivors is four blocks from the wreckage yet still within the police perimeter that has swallowed Surfside almost whole. Law enforcement vehicles of every type race down the shuttered street, their lights flashing. A Red Cross truck sits parked outside.

In the lobby, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross workers pass curious tourists in bathing suits and tropical shirts. Detectives arrive with notepads, seeking information. Neighbours-turned-survivors mingle, trading stories and sharing meals brought by volunteers.

A woman from the building, who before the collapse knew the Nirs only as the family whose kids were always reading, introduced herself and described her own harrowing escape.

“Everybody has their own stories,” Sara said. “Great miracles, you hear.”

They have almost nothing, all their earthly belongings cast among the rubble. The Saturday after the disaster, a family vacationing from the East Coast brought down a candle for the religious ritual marking the end of Shabbat, the day of rest. The two families gathered for an impromptu Havdalah right there in the lobby.

The Nirs look to faith to understand their survival. Eyal cried in the hours after the collapse, seeing images of the building and grasping what he called “the miracle of how God helped”. Sara said she sees God’s hands in everything. And Gabe, haunted by questions about why he was one of the few to survive, said he believes “God has a reason” for his family getting out.

They think about their lost neighbours, vanished within the space of a few seconds. Linda March, who had reportedly retreated to Florida from New York after getting through a bout of Covid-19. The family from Australia. Sara thinks of them as she tries to sleep.

“You think: ‘Oh, I know another couple – where are they? Nobody’s talking about them,’” she said. “You’ll be thinking how the security can maybe save other people.”

At night, Gabe goes through the what-ifs: What if he went back inside before the collapse? What if more people were saved? What if his family hadn’t made it out? What if they were still inside the building?

What if, what if, what if. Sometimes it feels as if he’s drowning under the weight of all the unanswerable questions.

The Washington Post

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