They escaped from the wreckage and smoke of the condo that was about to collapse

Marian and Alfredo Lopez were both asleep when the thundering blast knocked them awake. A second, louder boom erupted moments later from the sixth floor of their Miami apartment.

They escaped from the wreckage and smoke of the condo that was about to collapse

Alfredo ran to wake his son Michael, aged 24, and urged him to get dressed before running to the balcony.

"All I could see was white dust that was very thick. "I could barely see the balcony railing."

The emergency alarm rang, advising residents of Champlain Towers South that they needed to evacuate. Lopez considered sneakers but his hands were shaking so much that he could not tie the laces. He settled for sandals with straps.

Marian Lopez looked confused. Marian Lopez, 67, was disoriented as her husband pressurized her impatiently.

The Lopez family lived on the street side, which is still partially intact, for over two decades. Alfredo used joke to joke with his wife that he would have to be buried there.

Half of the building had vanished when he opened it that night. The floor was a five-foot thick and barely allowed for escape.

"There was no corridor, no ceiling, apartments, walls or any other structure."

The terrified 61-year old couldn't move and froze in terror.

"I was terrified. "I was terrified. "We are going to die."


Sometimes the line between life or death can seem as random as an ocean view or street view, or an odd or even unit. Nine days later, 126 residents, mostly from oceanside units, were among those who disappeared. However, others managed to escape. After the elevator fell, survivors climbed the cracked staircase that was separated from the wall. Along the way, they helped neighbors and friends they had known for years.

Although their escape seemed agonizingly slow, it happened in a matter of minutes. They were fighting for survival in those dangerous seconds before the world learned of the other 22 victims and many others.

Aguero stated, "When I opened the staircase doors and half of the staircase was missing from my hand, I knew we were racing against time to get out as a family."


Gabriel Nir, a recent college graduate, was down on the first floor and was cooking salmon in the kitchen. While the rest of the family would be sleeping, Gabriel Nir's 15-year-old brother was at the shower. His dad was away and his mom just returned from a party.

The first thunderous rumble was heard by all. The building was under construction. They were aware of the noise and were already annoyed by it. But this time, the sound felt completely different.

Sara Nir, their mom, ran to the lobby and asked the security guard if anything had been seen.

The concrete dust that had rushed into the apartment through the patio windows next to the pool was reflected back in the kitchen. Gabriel, 25, ran to the toilet as the ground shaken.

He yelled at his sister, "We must go now!" Their mother encouraged them to run to the lobby and called 911. Gabriel called because the guard couldn't recall the address.

He begged, "Please hurry up, please hurry!"

He noticed that the car deck had collapsed into the garage. The car alarms went off, the emergency lights flashed and water was quickly filling the garage.

He ran back to his lobby, where the dusty choking cloud made it hard to see. Residents upstairs ran screaming out of the building, some still wearing pajamas and one man pushing a baby stroller.

It was becoming harder to breathe. As he pulled his sister and mom safely onto the street, the rumbling intensified.

He ordered, "Run, Run."

As he turned to face the haunting image, tiny rocks and pieces of debris pelted his head.

He said, "I saw the building turn into a white powder." "I heard people screaming."

"I must go back. He said, "I have to make sure that everyone is OK."

He knew it was too late.


Albert Aguero, who was on the 11th Floor, stared disbelievingly at the holes in the elevator shaft.

Half the apartment next door was destroyed. It was dark. Aguero wondered if the power had been knocked out by lightning. The former college athlete, aged 42, was on vacation from New Jersey with Janette, his 14-year old daughter Athena, and Justin Willis (22 years), a college baseball player.

The son believed that a plane had crashed into his building. However, they were rushed to the stairwell and wondered if there was enough time for them to descend the 11 painful floors. Nobody panicked or cried.

"There was no time for you to react. Make your move.

They yelled the floor number each time they fell another level. This was a small victory in survival and one step closer to freedom.

They didn't have enough time to look back, so they often called each other.

"Justin, are we still there?"

"Babe, are your ok?"

Janette heard a banging sound on the stairs as they approached the fifth floor. Janette opened the door to reveal a group of women, including an older woman clutching an old woman.

As they were continuing their descent, she asked Aguero's son and his son to assist the elderly lady. Although there were some cracks in the stairwell, they were not too difficult to pass.

The pace was still too fast for her.

"Don't worry. I'm 88. She said that she had lived a happy life and tried to continue without her.

Aguero, however, was determined. They were determined to all make it alive. They moved quickly and carefully, without pushing or trampling.

He assured her that everything would be alright. "We will make sure that you reach 89."


Raysa Rodriguez, her neighbor Yadira Santos, and their 10-year-old son Kai, huddled together on the 9th floor. They had already noticed that half the building was gone, so they assumed the stairwells were also gone.

She believed that the only way to escape was to wait on a balcony for fire trucks to arrive. Her brother Fred phoned her in the chaos -- he was running to the building and stood outside. He repeated the same urgent warning repeatedly.

He pleaded, "Get out of here, get out!"

She countered, stating that there was no escape, and the stairs were gone.

Fred was grabbing his phone by a firefighter who gave a chilling command.

"You must find a way out."

They decided to go back to the stairwell. They reached the eighth floor and found Ada Lopez, 84 years old, waiting with her walker. Santos had called to warn them.

Rodriguez ran ahead to check if there was an escape route. The others assisted Lopez down the stairs, bumping into the Aguero family as well as Albert Lopez's clan.

Rodriguez retreated from the flood-prone parking lot.

Rodriguez was afraid that Rodriguez would be electrocuted.

They ran upstairs to the second story, where they found someone had left their apartment door open. They rushed to safety by calling rescue teams from outside the balcony. A cherry picker took them there.

Alfredo Lopez panicked back in the stairwell. There weren't any hugs, or even emotional words. He was annoyed that his wife wore slippers to help her navigate the doomsday scenario.

He yelled, "What were your thoughts?"

They reached the second floor. Susana Alvarez, 1006, was knocking at the stairwell door. Esther Gorfinkel, her neighbor of 88 years, was beside her.

Alvarez ran from her apartment. She had banged on the doors of her neighbors one more time using her cellphone flashlight to illuminate the darkness. She heard screaming from the destroyed side of the building.

She heard a woman cry out, "Help me, please!"

She says, "There were people alive there," quietly.

Alvarez, 62 years old, had just brought Mia, her cat, to the building one week ago. She was planning to move her mother into her condo in a matter of days. Alvarez, her only relative, is now able to care for her mother who has Alzheimer's.

Alvarez thought of Hilda Noriega, who was on the sixth floor, as she and Gorfinkel made her way down. She was like a family member. They had shared many holidays together. Since their time in Cuba, Noriega had been best friends with her mother.

She thought in her heart, "Can you rescue her, can you go get her?" "But I had already seen it so I continued on."

Gorfinkel complained that they were moving too fast and her knee was giving her severe pains. Lopez didn't think twice and continued to push.

He said, "The five of them became like a caravan."

Alvarez could not stop talking about the cat.

Lopez shouted, "Forget the cat!" in frustration. "We have to move."

They arrived at the parking lot and found one car on top of the other, having been crushed by a huge slab of concrete.

Alvarez panicked. Lopez's wife was also wearing slippers. It was too high for her to climb up the rubble onto the deck. The Aguero family was just ahead of them. Father and son lifted Gorfinkel up to the rubble.

She thought, "I can't make it." Although her hands were covered in blood, she didn't have any scratches and had no idea from where it came.

Gorfinkel called The Agueros a few days later to express her gratitude for their help. Alvarez is also insistent that she would not have survived without the Lopez family.

"Thanks to him, his son, we were able climb that rubble."


The Agueros, Nir, and Lopez families and their small ragtag group are now safe. They hugged their siblings and children tighter, knowing that many of their neighbors would never return or hug them again.

They don't have homes. All of it is gone. It's gone. Clothes and computers, cars, prescriptions. They say it's annoying, but it doesn’t really matter. They are still alive.

They still hear the screams at night and everything comes back.

Lopez, a religious man, said that he felt terrible guilt the first few days.

Gabriel Nir has trouble sleeping. He is determined to keep busy and forget about the what-ifs.

It's almost like a virus. It never stops," he regrets. "I wish that I could have done more... These people who are missing, they're not coming back."

His family is squeezed into a donated hotel room. He's brimming with adrenaline and days later his family is crammed into a nearby donated hotel room.

He said, "Check on your loved one... it's only a single life." "You never know what will happen today, tomorrow, or the next hour.

Alvarez is also filled with grief. Hilda Noriega is her best friend and mother's best friend.

Since that night, she hasn't slept in a bed and can't bear to crawl under the sheets. Instead, she sleeps in a chair.

"The people in rubble, I could see them. She says that some were shouting "Help!"

"That will haunt you forever. That will be something I never forget."

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