SURFSIDE, Fla. – Iliana Monteagudo sprang awake in her sixth-floor unit in the Champlain Tower South condominiums with the strange sensation that her home was swaying.
A strong breeze billowed through the two-bedroom condo, and Monteagudo, disoriented with sleep, thought maybe she’d left a balcony door open. The sliding glass door was open, but as she tried to close it, she noticed it had jumped off its track.
She heard a loud crack behind her. She turned to see the wall of her living room dividing into two, the gap widening as it snaked toward the floor.
A single thought bellowed through her: “Run!”
She pulled on a dress, grabbed her wallet and pillbox, blew out a candle she had lit earlier to a statuette of the Virgen de Guadalupe and ran into the hallway. She didn’t bother to put on a bra.
“Something inside me said, ‘If you put on a bra, those three seconds will be crucial,’” Monteagudo, 64, said. “I just ran.”
Three floors above her, Raysa Rodriguez awoke to a similar feeling of her building “swaying like a sheet of paper.” She grabbed her cellphone and ran into the darkened hallway. A concrete column pierced the hallway, and the doors to the elevators were gone.
Rodriguez opened a door to the outside stairwell and was hit by a terrifying sight: The entire beachside part of her building had crumpled into a heap of jagged rubble. She screamed.
Monteagudo and Rodriguez were among the more fortunate ones: They survived the collapse of the 12-story building. But the terror of June 24 didn’t end when the concrete building fell to earth with more than 160 people inside. For days, it followed relatives of residents who clung to hope that their loved ones could be found alive. It trailed survivors who struggled to untangle the knot of pain and confusion wrought from losing everything but their lives.
The confirmed death toll Thursday afternoon was 18, including two children, ages 4 and 10, who were found Wednesday. Nearly 150 residents remained missing.
As President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visited the disaster zone, search-and-rescue teams temporarily halted rescue efforts out of concern about the instability of a condo section still standing, further dimming family members’ hopes of their loved ones’ recovery. The rescue efforts restarted later in the afternoon.
Over the past week, the area around the collapsed condo building has been a hub of desolate activity, from search-and-rescue teams discovering body parts to rabbis consoling distraught family members to survivors pondering what to do next and pushing back anxiety.
Kevin Spiegel flew back from a business trip last week to find a warlike zone where his beachside condo once stood. His wife was among the missing.
He was in California when he woke up early on the morning of June 24 and found a string of alarming emails, including one from Surfside police, saying there had been an incident at the building where he lived with this wife, Judy Spiegel, 65.
“I opened the link and thought, wait, that’s my building,’” Spiegel said.
The family held on to hope that his wife was still alive, trapped in a concrete pocket among all the heavy, jagged debris. But Thursday, as they readied to meet Biden, reality began crashing in on them, and the suspension of rescue efforts served another gut punch.
“At this point, we realize it would take a miracle,” Spiegel said.
‘It was dragged down’
The 40-year-old building, which had a documented history of structural issues, began to shudder and sway sometime past 1 a.m., according to witnesses and 911 calls.
At around 1:30 a.m. EDT, the central portion of the condominium suddenly fell, according to surveillance video footage. The remaining eastern portion stood for about nine more seconds, then wobbled before it, too, crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust.
“The eastern side did its best to stay up,” said Roberto Leon, a construction engineering professor at Virginia Tech who has reviewed the footage. “It was almost human, trying to remain standing, but ultimately it was dragged down.”
The first calls came into the 911 dispatch center around 1:30 a.m., according to emergency radio transmissions acquired by WPLG-TV in Miami.
“Attention: Building collapse at 88th Street and Collins Avenue. Standby for dispatch,” a dispatcher said.
“People are evacuating,” another dispatcher can be heard saying, “said they sound like they heard a bomb.”
As the first emergency crews arrived, they sized up the enormity of the disaster over the crackling line of their radios.
“The building is gone. No elevators. There’s nothing,” one firefighter reported. Then, drawing comparisons to the 9/11 New York City terrorist attacks: “It almost resembles the Trade Center.”
Another firefighter: “We have people on the balcony shouting that they are trapped in their apartments and no interior way for them to escape and there is a danger of collapse.”
Soon the scene swarmed with blinking blue lights and firefighters and an array of first responders, all trying to figure out how to pull humans from the mounds of jagged concrete and stranded on balconies.
‘Please, God, help me!’
When Rodriguez screamed at the sight of her collapsed building, a woman trapped in the rubble heard her voice and cried out, “Please help me!” Rodriguez recounted her experience in a class-action lawsuit filed this week against the building’s condo association.
As she retreated to her condo to get dressed, neighbors showed up at her door, including a woman escaping with her 10-year-old son and Maltese puppy. Together, they made their way down the stairwell, helping an elderly neighbor. The first-floor door was blocked by rubble, forcing them back up to the second floor, where they found an open unit and escaped through a balcony.
Monteagudo’s escape took a lonelier path. She was alone as she dashed into the darkened hallway. It was eerily quiet. There was no alarm, no residents scrambling for safety.
She leaned an ear to the door directly across from her, belonging to Hilda Noreiga, an elderly woman who had befriended Monteagudo when she moved in in December.
When she heard silence, Monteagudo assumed Noreiga was visiting her son, Carlos Noreiga, the police chief in nearby North Bay Village, and moved on. A week later, Hilda Noreiga’s remains were identified in the rubble.
Monteagudo scampered down the far stairwell. As she approached the fourth floor, a thunderous boom filled the empty stairwell. She knew the building was collapsing.
“Please, God, help me!” she screamed. “I don’t want to die! I want to see my children! I want to see my grandchildren! Please, God, don’t let me die!”
Summoning her strength, she continued down the stairwell and reached the lobby, where a security guard helped her out the door and over a wall to the safety of the street.
She approached a young man filming the scene with his iPhone. She didn’t have any money or her cellphone to call an Uber. The man agreed to drive her to a relative’s home in South Beach.
“God had another mission for me,” Monteagudo said.
Moshe Candiotti, a 67-year-old retiree originally from Israel who has lived in the Miami area for 40 years, awoke in his fourth-floor apartment when he felt the building shudder. Then came the boom.
He ran down the stairs and saw an elderly woman, scared and clenching to the ramp. He helped her exit as others made their way to the street as fast as they could.
Candiotti, a former bodega owner, moved into the building in 2019. He said he only had made two or three friends because of the COVID-19 pandemic but was very sad about the loss of lives.
Candiotti said he was worried about the families. The shock took him back to his time serving in the army during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (1973 Arab-Israeli war), where his job on the southern border between Israel and Egypt was to pull bodies out and retrieve them.
“When you experience trauma, your mind doesn’t respond the same way,” he said. “It comes later.”
‘I knew that they were gone’
Cassie Stratton was a light sleeper. She woke up in her fourth-floor condo in the Champlain Tower South because of the sound of the ground outside cracking, her sister, Ashley Dean, said.
At around 1:30 a.m., she went out onto the balcony to call her husband, Michael Stratton, who was on a business trip in Washington, D.C. She told him the pool was caving in and the ground was shaking. She then let out a scream and the line went dead.
“My guts are just ripped out of my chest,” Dean said. “My sister was just so beautiful. Not just visually beautiful, but emotionally beautiful and spiritually beautiful, and she’s a person that was blessed with all the packages of a woman. She was a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a best friend. She was glamorous. She was talented. She was happy. She was healthy. She was kind.”
Dean said her sister complained about the condition of the parking garage because she had a new Porsche and she didn’t like parking it in the underground garage, which was often wet and dirty. But she didn’t expect the building was at risk of collapse.
“They had no idea of just what exactly was brewing underneath there,” she said.
Phoenix resident Nicholas Balboa, who was on a family vacation in Florida, was walking his dog around midnight near the condo tower when he felt the ground shake and then the building collapsed.
“At first I thought it was a thunderstorm but then I felt a shake and I knew thunder doesn’t make the ground shake,” Balboa said. “I knew it wasn’t normal so I decided to figure out what was going on.”
Balboa said it was “eerily quiet” as he and another person approached piles of concrete and metal. Police and first responders had not yet arrived when Balboa heard a scream and spotted little fingers pop out through the broken concrete.
He heard a boy’s voice: “Can somebody see me?”
Climbing over the rubble in his flip-flops, using his phone for light, Balboa reached Jonah Handler, 15.
“He was just saying, ‘Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.’ I told him: ‘We’re not gonna go anywhere. We’re staying,'” Balboa said.
Using his phone, Balboa signaled to rescuers, who pulled Handler to safety. Handler’s mother, Stacie Fang, died in the collapse. Having recently lost his own mother, Balboa said he identified with Handler.
“I know what that loss feels like, but especially in this situation, it’s just so much worse than anyone can possibly imagine,” Balboa said.
Fang, 54, was the first of the dead to be publicly identified. She was pulled from the rubble and died shortly after being taken to a nearby hospital, according to authorities
Alejandro Rodriguez took his seat on an American Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Miami on June 24 without watching the video of the Champlain tower collapsing into dust and rubble.
His mother, Elena Blasser, 64, and grandmother Elena Chavez, 88, were in Unit 1211 of that building and were unaccounted for.
Rodriguez had woken up early and noticed he had a missed call from his sister-in-law after 6 a.m. His abuela must have passed away in her sleep, he thought.
The reality was much worse.
“Your mom’s building fell,” the voice said on the other side of the phone. He mustered enough strength to pull up images on his phone. The headline on the article read “partial collapse.”
Rodriguez held on to those words as he booked his flight, packed his bag and had his girlfriend drive him to the airport. Tears rolled down his cheeks incessantly, but he avoided looking at any of the TVs at Reagan National Airport.
As he sat in the plane awaiting takeoff, his phone buzzed with a new link. He clicked on it and saw the building crumble for the first time.
“That’s when I knew that they were gone,” Rodriguez said. “That was the tower. I had just talked to both of them the night before.”
As the plane soared toward the sky, he sobbed. The images replayed in his head, and the tears streamed out. He stood up to get coffee, and a flight attendant asked if was OK. He told her his mother and grandmother were in the collapsed Surfside condo. She asked if she could hug him.
The woman wrapped her arms around Rodriguez, and he broke down in her embrace, repeating her name to himself over and over again. He didn’t want to forget her name.
Rodriguez returned to his seat.
After taxing to the gate in Miami, the flight attendant scurried to find Rodriguez. She handed him a box of tissues.
“For the car ride home,” she said.
Searching for survivors, caring for the dead
As search teams pulled bodies from the hill of rubble, religious leaders stepped in to offer comfort and guidance.
In the second-floor ballroom of the nearby Grand Beach Hotel, Julie Jacobs, the rabbi of Beth David Congregation in Miami, spent the week shuttling from one grieving family to the next as they waited to hear whether their loved ones had been found.
A petite woman with kinky salt-and-pepper hair, Jacobs spent hours staring at the rows of conference-room chairs assembled in the brightly lit room. For many of the families there, the stylish oceanfront hotel once evoked joyful memories, of weddings or bar and bat mitzvahs. The past week, it became a place of despair.
An official announced Tuesday that two more bodies had been found. A chorus of wails echoed through the ballroom.
“It feels like you are choking from the inside,” Jacobs said. “Like when you squeeze a washcloth, that’s what it feels like.”
The possibility of survival from structural collapses evaporates with each passing day, from an 81% chance on the first day of search-and-rescue efforts to 7% by day five, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“You can’t deny the current situation is that it’s been more than six days from the collapse,” said Elad Edri, deputy commander of the Israeli Defense Forces, which deployed search-and-rescue teams. “The chances to find [survivors] alive are low.”
Finding the dead poses unique challenges, especially among the building’s Jewish residents who observe strict burial rites. Throughout the week, volunteers from Chesed Shel Emes, a nonprofit group that assists law enforcement in collecting the remains of Jewish people to prepare for burial, hovered alongside nearby search-and-rescue teams.
When a body is found, the teams notify the Miami-Dade Police homicide division, which documents the scene and exact location of the body. The homicide division hands off to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office, then alerts Chesed Shel Emes, which takes over the remains, said Rabbi Mayer Berger, the group’s director.
“We’re going to do this for the duration of the operation,” he said.
Officials being honest about survivability is a key step in building trust with family members, said Jake Gillanders, executive director of Empact Northwest, the nation’s only nonprofit deployable urban search-and-rescue team. Speaking generally and not specifically about Miami, Gillanders said the standard practice is to have regular, private meetings with family members.
“It’s never an easy conversation,” said Gillanders, whose team has deployed to hurricanes, landslides and earthquakes globally. “A lot of what we have to do is just be honest with people, so they don’t get that false sense of hope. People really need to see that you’re putting in every effort possible because that’s a big part of them being able to accept at the end that you did everything you could.”
Gillanders said first responders and incident managers need to be prepared for family members to experience a wide range of emotions, sometimes simultaneously.
“They are in this terrifying limbo phase, and you have to be compassionate and sensitive to that,” he said. “Some people are having depression. Some have acceptance from the very start. Some respond with anger. You have to be prepared for any of those responses, and you have to be prepared to manage any of those responses.”
Survivors, many left homeless, also need support.
“The lives lost here will not be forgotten,” said Erik D’Moura, a resident of Champlain Towers South who decided late Wednesday to spend the night at his girlfriend’s house a few blocks away, possibly saving his life. “But on the other hand, the survivors cannot be forgotten either because they are going to need help.”
He added, “This thing won’t be easy.”
‘No one will remember’
The Red Cross set Monteagudo up at a hotel. Volunteers fed her three meals a day and gave her money to buy clothes and shoes.
She said she feels lucky to be alive, but depression sinks in when she thinks of the things she left behind in Unit 611: her wedding albums, photos of her parents in her native Cuba, photos of her children when they were young, all her clothes and other belongings.
Monteagudo said she fears that when the recovery finally ends and the TV cameras drift away, the world will forget about her and the others who made it out alive – but will have to restart their lives.
“The federal government will forget, the county will forget, the town of Surfside will forget,” she said. “Soon, when the morbidity of seeing human remains extracted from there ends, no one will remember those of us left on the street.”
Contributing: Jesse Mendoza, Sudiksha Kochi and Katherine Lewin, USA TODAY Network