A New Jersey family who survived the Surfside condominium collapse said they were mere feet from losing their lives.
Albert Aguero, his wife and two children, were on vacation in South Florida from North Bergen, staying in unit 1106 of the 12-story Champlain Towers South Condo, right by the wing that suddenly collapsed early Thursday. The father said he woke up around 1:15 a.m. and felt the building shaking and the walls moving, and noticed the chandeliers were swaying as the power went out.
"I look out onto the balcony and the entire building is covered by a grey cloud," Aguero said.
While he initially thought the building had been struck by lightning, Aguero said when he saw fire trucks arrive and went outside and was told by firefighters to evacuate, he knew it was serious.
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His son, Justin Willis, said it "felt like a plane was taking off from the top of our building."
Aguero said he grabbed a few items and he and his family began to make their way out of the building, and were stunned by the destruction they saw.
"I looked to my left and half of the apartment is gone, look forward and the elevator shaft is there and there's no elevator, it's just two holes," Aguero said. "Panic starts to set in, like we need to really run, because I don't know if the rest of it is coming down. We got to the stairwell and when we opened the door, that's when everything really hit, because half the wall to the stairwell was missing, it was kind of open air stairs, so now we're just racing down as fast as possible."
CONDO COLLAPSE COVERAGE
Around the sixth floor, they ran by a fire door that was stuck — with people frantically banding on it to try to get to the stairway. That's when Aguero's wife, Janette, stepped into action, helping to pry it ajar.
"(The woman) pushing o the other end, kicking it and me pulling it, we got it open," Janette said.
Aguero said his family got down to the third floor and found a young woman clinging to an elderly woman, and helped them get to the ground floor.
"The first floor had probably collapsed like three feet, so now we had to crawl up rubble with this elderly lady and get her up over that," he said. "We hopped over, walked outside to the pool area and now there's a huge gap about three-foot, where that was really kind of a challenge."
Aguero and his family were able to get over the gap and help the elderly woman over, then they sprinted to the beach.
"There were times when she wanted to give up, and I said no, no. I got her to tell me her life story, so she got her mind off of what was going on," Aguero said.
The unit they were staying in was just feet from the precipice, a chasm 11 stories down. For the family, nearly three years of good memories and fun vacation times became a night of hell.
"My initial reaction is wow, we were so lucky. We talked about it and we say it's about 15 feet that we survived by, if we had been 15 feet to the right, it would have gone down, or half of the apartment would have gone down," Aguero said. "We were just tremendously lucky."
Aguero's father, who was in Hudson County while his family went through the horrific ordeal, told NBC New York that "yesterday when I woke up, I was crying, and today I am a mess."
At least four people were killed and nearly 160 remained unaccounted for Friday, as rescue workers continued to search through the rubble for possible survivors.
Aguero said they left behind passports, vaccination cards and even his wife's wedding rings that he'd like to retrieve, but he understands how dangerous the site remains.
"If I had five minutes I could get everything I need but there were folks that didn't get five minutes so I really feel for them, we're just thankful to be alive," he said.
The family lives in a mid-rise in North Bergen — something that will be difficult for Janette.
"Every time I hear a noise, or every time the ground shakes, I'm going to be on pins and needles. I don't know who I'm going to deal with it."