UConn pitcher Justin Willis, family survived harrowing escape from collapsed Miami condos

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Justin Willis was up past 1 a.m. Thursday, watching TV, playing a video game as he and his family were beginning a vacation in the Miami area. He felt the building shake.

“It felt like a first gust of wind from a storm,” he said, “then the second one felt kind of like [Super Storm] Sandy, the way I remember it. It kind of seemed normal for the moment. Then the third one felt like a jet took off right on top of our building. I was expecting to see a plane come right over our balcony.”

Willis and his sister began to see dust and debris billowing up on their 11th-floor balcony overlooking the ocean, and his parents emerged from their sleep and came out to the living room.

“It was just a big cloud,” Willis said, “We gathered all the stuff we could and walked down, tried to see what was happening.”

When they got out to the hall, they saw a two big holes where the elevators were supposed to be. They could see right out to the ocean, and they saw the apartment next to them was gone.

Willis, 22, who pitches for UConn, and his father, Albert Aguero, his mother, Janette Aguero, and his sister, Athena Aguero, made their way to the stairway to descend 11 floors and get out of the Champlain Towers condominium complex in Surfside, Fla., still not fully realizing that a large part of their building had collapsed, burying scores of residents in the rubble. As of Saturday, four were dead and 159 still missing and unaccounted for as workers searched the rubble.

“We were so naïve, and we don’t know the building well enough to know that more than half the building collapsed,” Willis told The Courant on Saturday, composed as he and his family were waiting at Miami International Airport to board a flight home to New Jersey. “The lights were out, and we were just trying to get out of there as fast as possible.”

It took them about 15 minutes, though he said it seemed much longer. When they reached the third floor, they found an elderly woman with a cane, missing one sandal, praying in Spanish. “She was 88 or 89 years old,” Willis said. “She was saying, ‘I’ve had good life,’ and this and that, and my father speaks Spanish. He told her, ‘We’ll get you out of here.’”

Gently, Willis and his family led the woman with them to the first floor. The garage was flooded. They lifted the woman over a wall that had collapsed near the pool, and over a stretch of broken tiles. “At the moment, [focusing on saving the woman] takes your mind off it,” Willis said. “There is something else going on.”

They haven’t found out her name, but have since ascertained that she is safe and getting the treatment she needed, Willis said

At 1:38 a.m. — Willis knows the time because his father snapped a picture — the family reached the beach and were unhurt and out of danger.

“Once we reached the beach, it kind of settled in,” Willis said, “like, wow, what just happened? I didn’t even think about it in the moment. I didn’t look back at the building.”

Willis believes that he and his sister were about 15 feet away from the edge of where the building collapsed. At 2 p.m., at a nearby recreation center, people from the tower that had collapsed were asked to go into a designated room, and his family was one of a small number, Willis said. They returned to the site at about 6 a.m.

“The crazy part was looking in the hallway to our left,” Willis said. “Me and my sister in the living room were probably the closest, were maybe 15 feet away from where the building ended up just breaking off. It just gives you a new sense. I’ve always been a positive kid. I like to think I’ve had some unreal experiences in baseball and what my parents have sacrificed for me, but it definitely gives you a new meaning.”

Willis and his family live in West New York, N.J., in the Palisades along the Hudson River. The apartment in Surfside, Fla., near Miami, belonged to his grandparents, and the family frequently uses it for vacation. After the UConn baseball season ended in the NCAA Tournament earlier this month, Willis returned to West New York, and the family traveled to Florida to spend 10 days as he was figuring out his summer baseball plans.

A righthander, Willis, 5 feet 8, began his collegiate career at Vanderbilt, then transferred to UConn, where he had to sit out a season due to NCAA rules, and also missed time with an injury. He returned to the mound after missing two full seasons, and was 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA, the winning pitcher as UConn beat Xavier to clinch the Big East Tournament title and an NCAA bid.

“He’s always had a slow heartbeat. Nothing seems to fluster him,” said UConn coach Jim Penders, who has been in contact with Willis and his family several times since Thursday’s tragedy. “It was incredible how composed he was, how present he was for his family. He wanted to talk. He wasn’t shutting down. I said he must be in shock, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ He sounded like he sounds when I hand him the ball — OK, we have a job to do. Let’s go. ... I couldn’t imagine myself at that age going through something like that and being as composed as he was.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.

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