'We were racing against time': New Jersey family lives to tell of harrowing escape from collapsing Florida condo building

·3 min read

Just after 1 a.m. Thursday, the balcony doors of the Aguero family's 11th floor Surfside oceanfront condo unit began to rattle and shake.

Albert Aguero and his wife were asleep in the master bedroom. Their 22-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, watching a Netflix Spanish teen drama, thought it was the beginning of a trademark South Florida summer thunderstorm.

Minutes later, Aguero was awakened by a loud thud. The condo walls shook. The unit's chandelier and pendant lights swung wildly. His wife, Janette, jumped out of bed to check on their children.

Aguero peered out the window and saw a plume of what appeared to be gray smoke. It wasn't until he stepped out on the balcony that he discovered it was something entirely different – tiny bits of concrete dust.

'Please don't leave me': Boy trapped in Florida condo rubble rescued by man walking dog

Champlain Towers South was collapsing.

"When we opened the door to the apartment is when we really realized what happened. I look to the left and there was honestly nothing," Aguero told USA TODAY. "The apartment to the left of us had been sheared in half. I looked forward to the elevators, directly across from us, and there was just two holes.

"I yelled back to my wife, ‘We may not be out of this just yet.'"

Aguero family narrowly escapes collapsing Surfside condo tower
Aguero family narrowly escapes collapsing Surfside condo tower

They grabbed their wallets and phones, leaving behind other possessions, and sprinted down a stairwell missing one wall. They realized the rest of the building could soon collapse.

"We were racing against time," Aguero said.

They made it to the third floor, when they spotted an older woman struggling to get down the steps. Aguero and his son, Justin Willis, helped guide her, protecting her from a fall in the fraught conditions and the potential rush of other residents seeking safety.

They reached the first floor, which had appeared to sink 3 to 4 feet, Aguero said. They climbed across jagged chunks of concrete and debris to reach the pool deck.

Willis, a University of Connecticut baseball player, crossed a stretch of broken tile and a small opening to gently pull the woman to safety. From the pool deck, they scurried to the beach, fearing the rest of the high-rise condo might soon crash down.

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Aguero said he and his family are still shaken by Thursday morning's ordeal. They live full-time in northern New Jersey, outside New York City, and frequently visit the family condo for quick vacations and weekend getaways.

Like Miami, the condo building is a mix of cultures, ages and backgrounds. One floor below the Aguero family's unit, several members of the first family of Paraguay occupied one unit. They are now missing, Leticia Robertti, a spokesperson for the Consul General of Paraguay in Miami, told USA TODAY.

The Aguero family didn't know the neighbors well, but they always exchanged a friendly wave. It was a safe and considerate community, even during the pandemic, with residents respectfully wearing masks and keeping their distance, he said.

Before and after: A look at Champlain Towers South, the Florida building that partially collapsed

Aguero and his family remain in South Florida and have received assistance from the Red Cross. They will return home to New Jersey on Monday, or sooner if they can arrange an earlier flight.

Aguero worries as he awaits word about his neighbors. He also feels thankful.

"Definitely feel we’ve been given a second opportunity at life," Aguero said. "We want to make the most out of it."

Ken Alltucker is on Twitter as @kalltucker or can be emailed at alltuck@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Surfside condo collapse: New Jersey family recalls harrowing escape

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