Justin Willis, a pitcher for the UConn baseball team, was in Surfside when he heard an explosion. “I could smell the smoke and I knew something bad had happened,” he said. His girlfriend had been looking for him all day after she left their condo to go to work.
6:30 a.m. Eastern Time
ESPN.com’s Anthony Olivieri
JUSTIN WILLIS just saw the sea. He saw water and nothing else when he peered down a dark corridor, through a hole in the wall, outside his grandparents’ 11th-floor apartment in Surfside, Florida. Nearby, he could see through the top half of a damaged door belonging to a neighbor. The remainder of the apartment, which he had anticipated to see behind the closed door, had been severed and vanished.
Willis, a baseball star for the University of Connecticut, knew he and his family had to get out and find their way to the beach. He wasn’t alone, either. Esther Gorfinkel, who lived several stories below, felt she had to go as well. Gorfinkel, 88, had never met Willis, 22, yet they had everything in common instantly and forcefully.
Willis and his 14-year-old sister, Athena, were still up and watching TV in the early morning hours of June 24. Willis, a right-handed reliever for the Huskies, had stayed up late to watch Vanderbilt defeat Stanford 6-5 in the College World Series before watching a Netflix movie. Just 212 weeks after UConn’s season ended in the NCAA regionals, their family was on vacation.
Willis was jolted awake from his slumber by three loud bangs. They came in quick succession, beginning with the familiar boom of a coastal storm and increasing in volume until Willis believed a jet was taxiing on the roof. Albert and Janette Aguero, his parents, sprang from their beds. They had no idea what was going on either. His father climbed the stairs to the balcony. Below, firefighters had arrived. The air was thick with concrete dust. A fireman yelled, “Get out!” So, still puzzled, they entered the corridor via double doors, wondering whether it was a storm or the echoes of damage to a nearby building. Janette and Athena just took their phones and water bottles, while Albert and Justin only took their phones and wallets.
That’s when they saw the Atlantic Ocean 15 feet distant, two doors below.
Champlain Towers South, a 12-story, 136-unit building, has partly fallen. Willis and his family devised a perilous escape from the tower’s ruins, using cunning and chance. They had no clue the garage-level hole they fled through wasn’t there before since they were tourists rather than homeowners. They were also lucky that the steps leading to the garage were clear.
“It was really the only way out,” Albert subsequently said.
Above all, they were fortunate to come upon Esther Gorfinkel, who was on the verge of surrendering.
On a night that would alter their lives forever, they helped save her life.
On June 24, the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, partly collapsed. Authorities discovered the remains of the 98th victim earlier this week, increasing the total number of victims to 98. Getty Images/Joe Raedle
THERE WAS SILENCE OUTSIDE APARTMENT 1106, IN THE PITCH-BLACK. There were no sirens to match the pandemonium that had come. There is no automated voice that repeats emergency instructions. The power has gone out. The elevator shafts were hollowed out and the elevators were no longer functional. The stairwell entrance was next to those shafts, with an illuminated escape sign.
Albert took the lead as the family of four descended, and Janette trailed after to safeguard the children. The stairwell’s disintegrating walls let in a ray of moonlight.
Albert started counting.
It’s ten o’clock.
Are you still there, guys?
We’ve arrived at eight o’clock.
Are you still there?
We’ve arrived at six o’clock.
They heard cries for help from individuals trying to get out on the sixth level. Janette yanked through a blocked door, enabling three guests from that level to attend the party.
Esther Gorfinkel, who had resided in her fifth-story apartment for almost four decades, greeted them when they arrived on the third level. She had escaped in sandals and a nightgown, carrying just a torch. Her late husband, a WWII veteran, had once advised her to never look back in the direction of danger.
“I walked to my left since there was along there… an escape door there to go in the stairs,” Gorfinkel said. “I saw devastation. After that, I could see a sliver of sky. Then I realize something isn’t right. And I turned right, entered [that] door, and walked up [those] steps.”
The stairwell was a jumbled mess. From the sixth story, Alfredo Lopez and his family were present. Willis and his family were invited to take over by another lady who had briefly touched Gorfinkel’s hand. Gorfinkel need assistance in order to maintain his speed. It was all a blur for her.
“I told them, ‘I just turned 88,’ and they replied, ‘Look what happened,’” Gorfinkel recalled.
Willis said he grabbed one of her arms, while Albert grabbed the other.
“‘I’ve had a wonderful life,’ she said at that moment. You’re free to leave,’ “Albert recalled something. He assured her that she would live to be 89 years old.
He replied, “This isn’t it for you.”
They led her down to a garage in the basement, where water splashed on their calves. They recalled that there was nowhere to go. The ramp leading to the roadway has been obliterated. However, they spotted a breach in the structure that they might escape through provided they could climb three feet of concrete with Gorfinkel in tow, a hole presumably created by the shifting building.
Gorfinkel subsequently recalled, “I couldn’t walk because my back and feet ached.”
Willis said that he rushed forward and dragged her over and through some bushes, while his father lifted her up from below and his mother guided her. Safety and death were separated by three feet. He then hoisted her into the air, according to Willis, to clear a railing. Gorfinkel claimed he misplaced a sandal in the woods, but they had to keep moving toward the shore. They were still buried under the structure.
The party overshot the lobby, which was already blocked, and didn’t realize there was no designated escape in the garage since they were unfamiliar with the layout of the towers — the apartment had been in the family for three years, but this was the first trip for all four of them together.
“There were survivors who were carried out on cherry pickers from balconies later… who had lived there for 15 years or more, who were screaming at us from balconies when they spotted us coming out of the debris, asking, ‘How did you get out?’” Janette expressed her thoughts.
“‘The stairs, the stairs,’ we kept reminding them. ‘But the door [to the lobby] won’t open,’ they scream. They must have known intuitively that they couldn’t descend to the bottom floor since they couldn’t possibly end up trapped in the garage.”
They were outside the building after passing through the hole, but not yet safe. They worried the remainder of the structure might collapse as well.
“It didn’t even occur to me that we were still beneath the building,” Willis recalled. “‘All right, we’re outdoors,’ I say. ‘I can’t believe it’s going to slide forward,’ even if it logically might.”
They proceeded to the pool area near the beach, where they encountered yet another stumbling block. The collapsing deck had left a 4-foot gap between the pool and the still-standing deck. While Albert leaped the gap, Willis claimed he scooped up Gorfinkel and threw him up to his father and to safety. Willis remarked, “It was a breath of relief.”
They made their way to the beach near the building, through the pool gate, across a grassy area with barbeque grills, and down a small walk — close enough to witness the horror of what they had fled but far enough away to prevent further breakdown.
Gorfinkel, on the other hand, couldn’t go any farther. She made it through the fence and came upon a picnic seat.
She said, “I need to sit down.” “I’m going to have a heart attack,” says the narrator.
Willis, a transfer from Vanderbilt, tore his ACL at Storrs, Connecticut, in 2019. In the aftermath of the Surfside tragedy, he’s taking a break from the game this summer. UConn Athletics provided this image.
THEY TOOK PHOTOS FROM THE BEACH. That was the only way they could tell how long it had been. Janette’s picture was taken at 1:36 a.m. 1:38, according to Albert. They recall leaving their apartment at 1:45 a.m. They were well aware of their good fortune. As a result, they stood on the shore, digesting their terror, grief, and astonishment. It was a game of inches for them to stay alive. “Because the ocean has always been my safe haven,” Albert said, “I felt secure there.” “Is there anything else that might happen?”
Gorfinkel remained with Lopez and his family until medical help came as they collected themselves on the beach. Willis and his family made certain that the appropriate people were aware of her whereabouts. They brought her across the street and away from the building to check her blood pressure. She hadn’t suffered from a heart attack. Gorfinkel’s son received a call and went to pick up his mother.
The family finally discovered the street via an adjacent building and proceeded to nearby Harding Avenue, where a lady with a bag informed them that she was prepared for anything similar to occur. She fled after the first explosion and watched as part of the structure crumbled.
They arrived to the Town of Surfside Community Center on 93rd Street and Collins Avenue, just five blocks from Champlain Towers South, shortly afterwards. Hundreds of other individuals had already arrived, causing Willis’ family to think they had survived the collapse as well. They were optimistic. Officials had also evacuated a neighboring structure, which they were unaware of. When the cops arrived, they requested that individuals from the neighboring building separate themselves from those from Champlain Towers South.
According to Janette and Albert, more than 50 individuals got up and moved.
Janette subsequently revealed, “There are seven of us [from Champlain Towers South].” “Seven.”
Many of the others had gone missing.
“Watching folks walk into the [community center] at 6 a.m. and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so, I’m here for them,’ and then bawl their eyes out when that person isn’t there,” Willis added. “That struck me like a ton of bricks.”
They remained there until 6:30 a.m., digesting the 11 minutes that had passed. Albert had to speak with the cops, so the rest of the family went to the building to see what they had accomplished. Albert was the only one who didn’t follow. He want to look at something different.
The sun is rising.
With his parents, Albert and Janette Aguero, and sister, Athena Aguero, Justin Willis managed to flee Champlain Towers South. Willis’ grandparents’ 11th-floor apartment was where the New Jersey natives were vacationing. ESPN’s Rob Tringali
TWO DAYS LATER, AS WILLIS AND HIS FAMILY WERE READY TO BOARD A FLIGHT HOME FROM MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, ALBERTO AGURO RECEIVED A CALL FROM THE SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT INQUIRING IF THEY WERE ALIVE. They were back home in North Bergen, New Jersey, two days later, in a thick neighborhood not far from the Hudson River’s western bank, where they had weathered Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Willis recalled acquaintances from neighboring Hoboken who had lost their homes and others who now gaze at moss and fungus in their basements as a reminder of the devastating floods.
He compared the second big boom he heard in Florida to the one he heard after Hurricane Sandy, when he and his family were without electricity for nine days.
For him, the fall of the structure was unique. It happened quickly, yet it lasted for a long time. Only one sensation, according to Willis, compares to fleeing down those steps: throwing. He gets tunnel vision while he’s on the mound. He doesn’t always remember what occurred. He got out of a jam with the bases loaded and one out in a game at Minute Maid Park in Houston during his rookie year at Vanderbilt, before transferring to UConn. He has no recollection of any of it.
Willis stated after his performance against Louisiana-Lafayette on March 3, 2018, that he “totally blacked out.”
Willis claimed the majority of his escape from the Florida condo was a blur, including the frantic rush out of the unit and the frantic fall. The trip seemed like seconds at times, a fight-or-flight surge of terror and adrenaline. Other sections might have gone on for hours.
Willis, on the other hand, recalls certain particular facts and what it was like for his family to assist in the rescue of Esther Gorfinkel. He didn’t claim they saved a life, but he did talk about climbing the gap near the pool. As he stepped on a stray concrete block, he recalled the angle of his foot. He remembered the wall he used for leverage and the location of his father.
He recalled how relieved he was when everyone, including Gorfinkel, arrived safely.
“That’s when you’re at ease,” he said.
FIREFIGHTERS QUIT SEARCHING FOR BODYS ONE MONTH AFTER THE COLLISION. A total of 98 persons were killed. All of the fatalities have been identified by authorities. Willis and his family were among those that made it out alive. The search has been assisted by rescue teams from as far afield as Israel and Mexico. Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of Champlain Towers South residents seeking answers from the condominium association, which was notified of a 2018 inspection that discovered “major structural damage” at the property, including that same pool deck from which Willis, his family, and Gorfinkel narrowly escaped. The family is involved in a class-action lawsuit, according to Janette.
Albert said that the building’s owners, his parents, had just received a $80,000 assessment for repairs. He claimed the family thought the money would be used to improve the looks rather than strengthen the structure. They assumed it was to keep up with the newer structures that had been constructed nearby. The building in which Albert’s parents had planned to retire, Champlain Towers South, was destroyed.
They are thankful for their survival.
“A lot of things simply fell into place for us,” Janette said. “I’m still not sure how,” she says.
This summer, Willis was set to play for the Keene Swamp Bats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He was also invited to join the Cape Cod Baseball League. He, on the other hand, chose not to play at all in order to spend more time with his family. Willis, who tore his ACL playing basketball shortly after coming to UConn in the autumn of 2019, has had a lot to absorb. Then COVID-19 arrived just in time for the spring baseball season. He does, however, have support.
Willis stated that a lot of individuals from UConn’s administration had reached out to him and given instant assistance and counseling. His colleagues have sent motivational words in the Huskies’ group chat. On the day of the incident, longtime UConn baseball coach Jim Penders texted Willis before the two exchanged phone conversations. Willis expressed his gratitude to Penders for keeping him alive.
“It has given me a new perspective on life,” Willis added.
“I’m confident he’ll pay a price at some time,” Penders said.
Willis has already experienced some of the trauma’s consequences. The bathroom lights in his New Jersey apartment flickered as he went in, evoking a recollection of the tower fall and driving him into a panic.
His family has also remembered that morning in Florida. Albert’s parents own a timeshare at Marriott’s Aruba Surf Club, where the family vacationed in late July. A fire alarm went off at 5 a.m. one day. They exchanged horrified looks. Janette has been having difficulty sleeping. She’d wake up in the middle of the night, clawing at the mattress, certain that the bed was swaying. A thunderclap will sound too much like the sounds that preceded the building’s destruction.
Athena heard the explosions and saw the sea. She was in the stairs and the hallway. She dashed through the garage, outrunning her family and Gorfinkel, who was the first to leave.
When she grows up, she wants to be an architect.
Albert Aguero, who took this picture the day before the condo fell, said he knew the family was running out of time to get out. AP Photo/Alberto Aguero
Esther Gorfinkel signed on to a Zoom call set up by her granddaughter in the South Florida house of her son, Marcos, with whom she was staying after she lost everything a week after the collapse. It was late in the morning, and she was exhausted.
She spoke of her life before the building was demolished, the in-home nurse who came to her apartment, and the white patio furniture that could be seen from afar. Gorfinkel believed it was pouring that night because she heard what she thought was thunder. The bed then shifted, and the apartment followed suit. She considered her neighbors.
“”The first night [after the crash], I had a little difficulty going asleep,” she said. I’m thinking about the individuals who aren’t willing to come out. Some of my pals have never come out to me.”
When Willis and his family split off on their trip to the beach, they lost contact with Gorfinkel. They were still digesting their own trauma when they returned to New Jersey. Thunderstorms passed through.
However, soon after they returned home, Albert received a text from Marcos, who expressed gratitude for the family’s assistance in saving his mother’s life. He inquired whether he may make a phone call. Gorfinkel spoke to Albert about the escape and what’s next, with Willis listening in. Gorfinkel began from the beginning at the age of 88. There was no identification, no spectacles, and no place to call home. She had lost everything.
Gorfinkel reflected on her escape, saying that many individuals assisted her along the way, including Lopez, her sixth-floor neighbor. She admitted that in her haste to get away, some of the facts blurred for her, but she was certain of one thing.
“There are no words to describe how you feel when someone helps you save your life,” Gorfinkel added.
She took a breath and hesitated.
“I also believe I would… express my gratitude in person.”
She then began to cry.