A South Florida vacation almost turned tragic for Justin Willis.
But the UConn pitcher and his family escaped the deadly Surfside, Florida, high-rise collapse that as of Sunday afternoon had left nine confirmed dead and more than 150 people still missing. According to Willis, they were able to save an older woman from the wreckage as they made their escape from their 11th-floor rental.
'Felt like a jet took off right on top of our building'
Willis told his story to the Hartford Courant on Saturday, recounting that his family had just started their vacation from New Jersey when a wing of the Champlain Towers condominium complex partially collapsed early Thursday morning. He and his sister, Athena Aguero, were up watching TV and playing video games after their parents had gone to bed when they felt the building shake and heard a noise that sounded like a jet engine.
“It felt like a first gust of wind from a storm, then the second one felt kind of like [Super Storm] Sandy, the way I remember it," Willis told the Courant. "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.”
The noise woke Willis' parents, Albert and Janette Aguero, and the family ran out to the hallway after a cloud of debris surfaced over their oceanfront balcony. Albert told NBC 4 New York that he initially thought the building had been struck by lightning before realizing something much more serious had happened.
Next-door apartment was gone
When they got to the hallway, they saw two holes where elevators used to be. Their neighboring apartment was gone. They found a stairwell and started to make their way down.
"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," Albert told NBC 4. "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."
After what Willis said was a 15-minute trek down the stairs that included helping a group of people pry open a stuck fire door on the sixth floor, his family found an older woman praying in Spanish on the third floor alongside a younger woman.
“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.’”
According to Willis, they escorted the woman to the first floor where they found the garage to be flooded. They lifted her over a wall before they sprinted to the safety of the nearby beach. Willis told the Courant that he and his sister were just feet away from being crushed in the collapse.
“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."
Willis joined his family on vacation fresh off the conclusion of UConn's baseball season, which included a Big East championship. The Huskies' final game was an NCAA tournament loss to Central Michigan on June 6.
The search and rescue operation at Champlain Towers remains ongoing, as does the investigation into what caused the collapse.
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