‘They were on their balconies, screaming’: The final minutes at Champlain Towers South

An oceanfront respite from the world’s troubles drops into rubble in 11 seconds

Search and rescue personnel pull a body out of the rubble after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., on June 24. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
correction

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that seven bodies had been recovered as of Saturday; the actual number was five. It also incorrectly reported that Cassondra Stratton saw the swimming pool cave in; it was the pool deck. The story failed to attribute a quote from Stratton's husband, Michael, to Denver's KDVR-TV. The story has been corrected.

SURFSIDE, Fla. — From her fourth-floor balcony, Cassondra Stratton felt a tremor and saw the deck of the swimming pool cave in. She immediately called her husband, Michael, in Denver, 2,000 miles away.

Michael listened as Cassondra, who had been riding out the pandemic at their apartment on the beach in Surfside, described a sudden shaking.

“And then the phone went dead,” he told Denver’s KDVR-TV.

“She screamed bloody murder and that was it,” Stratton’s sister, Ashley Dean, told The Washington Post.

It was after 1 a.m. Thursday, and the night owls at Champlain Towers South were up watching TV, relaxing on their terraces, chatting on the phone. A gentle tropical breeze swept in off the ocean. The sky was a hazy dark blue, a common sight on moonlit nights in South Florida, where the clouds and humidity accentuate the glow of city lights.

Then, a howling sound. Midway up the 12-story condo building, eerie orange flashes pierced the night.

Thursday, 1:20 a.m.: A call went out on the Miami-Dade County fire-rescue radio channel. The dispatcher said there’d been a “garage collapse.” The radio summoned Engine 76 from the Bay Harbor Islands firehouse, less than two miles away.

At Collins Avenue and 88th Street, just north of the city of Miami Beach, Champlain Towers South abruptly shook and rumbled. People heard a boom, then a louder one. There was enough time to get out of bed and step into the next room, to grab a phone or keys.

Then a massive hunk of the building dropped out of existence. It just fell. Between 55 and 70 apartments worth of concrete, steel and furnishings collapsed into a smoking, burning pile.

On video captured by nearby surveillance cameras, the collapse seemed to occur in slow motion. One huge section of the building, on its north side, pancaked. Eight seconds later, a second chunk, the piece closest to the beach, fell. In 11 seconds, there was emptiness in a space where hundreds of people had made their homes.

June is a quiet time in this little town, just eight by about eight blocks, on the narrow urban island that separates Miami from the Atlantic Ocean. The snowbirds are mainly back up north. Tourists, even in non-pandemic years, are scarce. In buildings such as Champlain Towers, some units are sealed up for the summer, hurricane shutters stretched across their windows.

But even in the middle of the night, a handful of people dotted the sidewalks near the building. On the mostly deserted sand that separated the tower from the sea, a lone fisherman, Dino Buisine, was in his beach chair fishing for crevalle jack, his pole tucked into a PVC pipe in the sand.

“I heard a big ggggrrrh and then see this big ball of dust in the air,” said Buisine, a local landscaper who remembers when the Champlain went up in 1981. “I heard the boom and it looked like dominoes: First one part came down, then the part behind it. I could hear screaming from people on the other side, the side that was still standing. They were on their balconies, screaming, because the elevators didn’t work.”

Buisine knew not to move toward the rubble: “I did demolition and construction in the Army and they teach you to move away from things like that.” He packed up his stuff, including the jacks he’d caught, and went home to Miami.

Video timeline: How the Miami-Dade condo collapsed

1:25 a.m.: At the towers, a cloud of ash and smoke rose into the sky, along with shouts and terrified cries. Nicholas Balboa, in town from Phoenix to visit relatives, was on Collins Avenue walking the family dog when he felt the ground shake.

“I heard a sound, almost sounded like thunder,” he said. “I thought a storm might be rolling in.”

But then a whip of air rushed between the buildings, followed by a plume of dust and debris, and Balboa knew this was nothing nature had created.

Inside the tower, on the fifth floor, Esther Gorfinkel heard something and felt the shaking. Bad weather, she thought. In storm-prone South Florida, shaking didn’t necessarily mean crisis. Then Gorfinkel — at 88, an original resident of Champlain Towers — heard an announcement on the building intercom, first in English, then in Spanish: Evacuate now.

She hurried to a nearby exit door but it was warped, mangled. Suddenly, she could see the sky from inside her building. She groped toward another emergency exit, joining a group of about 15 people. They made it down the stairs of the still-standing portion of the building.

The others helped Gorfinkel wade through a murky mix of rubble and water pooled in the garage. At one point, two men carried Gorfinkel on their shoulders, past overturned cars, to dry ground.

The group found temporary refuge on the beach. They turned to see their segment of the tower, its contents now open to the sky. In the space where the rest of their building had stood, now air, smoke, ash.

“We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Gorfinkel said.

They walked to a nearby building where Gorfinkel used a stranger’s phone to call her sons. She had left home with nothing but her keys and a lantern.

1:29 a.m.: A first responder with Engine 76 called out to dispatch: “This is going to be an entire building.” He counted the floors: “One, two, three, four, five — 12 to 13 stories. Um, shit.”

He paused. “Most of the building is gone.”

Now the call went out to all units, to nearby beach communities and communities across Biscayne Bay, to Miami and other mainland cities.

1:50 a.m.: The entire avenue was chock-a-block with emergency vehicles, more than 80 of them. Firefighters and other first responders hurried onto the tall mound of rubble, looking for people. An urban rescue dog sniffed the debris, searching for survivors.

“We’ve got people trapped,” a fire-rescue dispatcher called out to all units. “The building is at risk for a further collapse. We need manpower. We got active people trapped on the rubble. Need some backboards over here.”

From the still-standing portion of the tower, residents waved to rescue workers, who directed cherry-pickers to nudge up against the building and retrieve people whose apartments had been sheared open. Entire rooms stood exposed, like stage sets before an audience — bunk beds here, a couch there, a washing machine hanging from a ledge, mattresses stacked against a wall.

What you need to know about the Florida condo collapse as the search for survivors continues

2 a.m.: Balboa walked his dog around to the oceanside of the Champlain complex and heard someone yelling. “A little boy, by voice,” he said.

He saw a hand waving from the rubble, called out to a police officer and together they climbed up the concrete shards as the officer radioed for help.

“Don’t leave me,” the boy cried. “Don’t leave me.”

The boy said his mother was in there, too, “but I couldn’t hear her or see her,” Balboa said.

Rescue workers extracted the boy and ordered Balboa off the rubble for his safety.

The boy, Jonah Handler, 15, a junior varsity baseball player at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens, was taken to the hospital but did not suffer severe injuries, a family member said. His mother, Stacie Fang, was extracted from the rubble but died at Aventura Hospital of blunt force injuries, according to the county medical examiner.

“It was like a mini 9/11,” Balboa said. “I mean, absolutely it looked like the World Trade Center, just debris everywhere. Except this was at home — there were beds you could see sticking out of the rubble.”

About the time Balboa found the boy, Surfside’s vice mayor, Tina Paul, got a call from the town manager. Paul was awake, but a work call at that hour couldn’t be good.

“We have a partial building collapse, and we expect fatalities,” the manager said.

Paul’s condo is a few blocks from the Champlain. She went out onto the balcony with her partner.

“It’s after 2 a.m. — what do we do?” she said. They had friends who lived in the Champlain. “Do we call to see if they’re okay?”

Below, they watched evacuees drifting by, walking away from the fallen building.

3:15 a.m.: At the town’s recreation center, people evacuated from the hotels and apartments adjacent to Champlain Towers stood watching TV coverage of the collapse. A few children tried to sleep on coffee tables and the floor.

Calls and texts startled relatives out of their sleep all across South Florida and the nation. Jenny Urgelles called her parents, who lived in the south tower. She had spoken to her father the previous day, and she’d texted with her mother. Now, “both their phones went straight to voice mail,” she said.

She called family friends who lived in another part of the building and they picked up. They were okay, but had no news of Urgelles’s parents.

4:30 a.m.: Rescue dogs prowled the rubble pile, their keepers waiting for the barks that would indicate signs of life. The animals stayed silent.

At hospitals throughout the county, emergency rooms prepared for a steady stream of injured people. Barely a trickle arrived.

At the area’s biggest trauma center, three patients came in from Surfside. Two of them, Angela Gonzalez and her daughter Devon, 16, fell from their ninth floor condo to the fifth floor when the building snapped apart. Angela broke her pelvis yet somehow managed to get up from the tangled concrete and pull Devon with her.

But Angela’s husband, Edgar Gonzalez, had vanished in the collapse. At the community center, his relatives maintained a vigil but heard nothing.

Nearby, a woman approached Paul, the vice mayor, and asked for help finding a friend from the collapsed building. The friend might be wandering around, confused, the woman said.

“I’ll go with you,” Paul said. “Let me go with you.”

They walked the streets together and found the man and brought him back to the community center. Paul positioned herself with the police brass and the town manager, who told her, “You know, the roof [of the Champlain] was inspected just yesterday.”

Engineer warned of ‘major structural damage’ years before Florida condo collapsed

6 a.m.: If people were still alive under the rubble, they needed to be found quickly. The rescue chiefs on the scene ordered workers to drill into the mound, creating tunnels through which they could search. More than 60 firefighters deployed, cutting open crevices to squeeze into the spaces between pieces of the building. But they kept running into blockages — thick concrete barriers — and small fires that seemed to flare every time they opened a new passageway.

After sunrise, Paul walked over to the rubble pile. A professional photographer who worked for many years in New York, including after the 9/11 attack, she had seen a mountain like that before.

“Eerily, ours didn’t look that much different,” she said.

8:15 a.m.: Fire officials said anyone still alive might already have been pulled out. In all, rescuers helped 35 people out of the building, the county reported.

9:45 a.m.: “We are bracing for some bad news,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said at a news conference.

11:10 a.m.: More than 100 friends and relatives of the missing gathered at an optimistically named Family Reunification Center at Surfside’s community center. Officials took down the names of those who had not been heard from. But they had nothing to offer in return, leaving family members to scroll through their social media feeds, call neighbors and otherwise keep searching.

Chatter flowed in English and Spanish and Hebrew. Relatives drove over from the mainland or flew in from around the country and across the hemisphere. The missing included Colombians and Venezuelans, Israelis and Puerto Ricans, people just visiting and people who’d long ago made Surfside their home.

As the day wore on, and South Florida’s fast-shifting weather alternated between intense sunshine and sudden downpours, people arrived at the center with flats of meat and industrial-sized jugs of water, toiletries and clothing, blankets and pillows. Nearly all of it sat untouched.

Chaplains arrived. So did therapy dogs. The powerful urge to help ran into the simple fact that those waiting wanted just one thing: News of the missing.

A sign was posted at the entrance to the center: “No more donation. Thanks.”

Noon: President Biden called Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava to offer federal assistance. By day’s end, federal emergency officials were looking into whether they might jump into the investigation into why a building that had recently passed inspection might suddenly collapse.

President Biden spoke on the partial collapse of a condo building in Surfside, Fla., during a June 25 ceremony making the Pulse nightclub a national memorial. (Video: The Washington Post)

3 p.m.: An Israeli team of seven rescuers and a cadaver dog joined the search on the rubble pile, blocking out the commotion from heavy machinery and helicopters overhead, focusing silently as they listened for the faintest sound of a living human being.

At the community center, Paul took a call from a relative wanting to know if she was okay.

“At that point, there were 57 people missing, and that’s when I almost choked up,” Paul said. “It hit me, but it didn’t hit me. I have to keep the strong face … stand strong no matter what you’re feeling inside, no matter how much pain you endure. It’s important for the people to see you as strong.”

8 p.m.: Engineers, architects, construction executives, building inspectors — a virtual battalion of people who understand why buildings stay standing spent the first day theorizing about what went wrong. There were almost as many notions as there were experts.

Repair work on the tower’s roof this spring involved drilling that worried some residents. Construction at the building next door shook apartments inside Champlain Towers, residents said. Some people pointed toward recent patching of erosion in the tower’s garage.

Video of rescue teams pushing through the wreckage of the parking decks revealed large pools of water, and residents said water had been a problem down there for a long time. This is true in many oceanfront buildings erected atop the soft, porous limestone beneath the island of Miami Beach. A study last year by a professor at Florida International University determined that Champlain Towers, built on reclaimed wetlands, had been sinking steadily since the 1990s.

A 2018 engineering report released late Friday by Surfside officials, warned that “extremely expensive” remediation was necessary to correct a “major error” in the building’s original construction that had caused “major structural damage.” The big problem, according to the report by engineer Frank Morabito, was that the pool deck was built without a slope, preventing water from draining.

Days before the collapse, Stratton, 40, the model and yoga instructor who went silent after calling her husband in Denver, had told family members that “something was wrong” with the building, according to Dean, her older sister. Stratton, who remains among the missing, had seen water damage and worried about the heavy equipment she saw being lifted to the roof for repair work, Dean said.

Other residents had expressed concerns, too. Elaine Sabino, a transplant from New York who had lived in the tower’s penthouse for two years, complained in recent weeks “about the construction on the roof,” said her brother-in-law, Douglas Berdeaux.

Sabino, who is also missing, “said it was vibrating her unit,” he said. “She even went up to talk to the construction manager and told them whatever they were doing was making her rooms vibrate. She said she was worried that the ceiling was going to collapse on top of her bed. She also said she heard water around the elevator. A manager went up to her unit with her and looked around, and told her they’re doing some work, but everything was okay.”

10 p.m.: Flashes of lightning illuminated the upscale condo buildings along Collins Avenue, which runs parallel to the ocean from frenetic Miami Beach to quieter Surfside. Near the Fendi Chateau Residences, six blocks from the Champlain, hundreds of people huddled under umbrellas — mostly press and some family members — hoping for news of loved ones.

As rain lashed in sheets, relatives wondered how anyone could be found alive in the deluge.

Green and white Miami-Dade police cars and Fire and Rescue vehicles strobed their red and yellow lights along Harding Avenue, projecting an otherworldly sense of urgency over a place where people usually cast their cares into the ocean breeze.

At the Residence Inn and the Four Seasons, evacuees from Champlain Towers mingled with relatives of the missing. Hotel room prices soared to $800, even $1,500 per night.

Friday, midnight: From the rubble pile, workers emerged carrying a body sealed inside a yellow plastic bag.

6:10 a.m.: As dawn approached over the ocean, small fires were still burning in pockets within the rubble. Smoke rose here and there, and ash floated through the thick air. The silence, punctuated by the metronomic crash of the waves, was somehow both calming and ominous.

7 a.m.: Sunrise brought reinforcements, rescue workers from Naples and Orlando to relieve the Miami-based crews who had been digging and cutting through the rubble for more than 24 hours. Soon, there was also a harrowing revision of the tally of the missing, which jumped from 99 to 159.

Rescuers occasionally heard banging noises, the county’s assistant fire-rescue chief said, but couldn’t tell if they were made by people or machines or just wreckage clanging against wreckage. No one heard any voices.

3:20 p.m.: At an emergency meeting of Surfside’s town commission, officials said they were hiring an independent engineering firm to examine what led to the collapse. They decided either to evacuate the other building in the Champlain Towers complex or give its residents the option of relocating.

“We have no idea what caused this collapse,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said, “and we all know the chances of that happening again are like lightning striking. But I don’t know that there’s anybody in this room that would be willing to roll the dice with all those lives and say, ‘Let’s not worry about it for a while.’ ”

Across the bay in Miami, the city ordered the inspection of every building of six or more stories that is at least 40 years old.

At least 159 people are unaccounted for and four are confirmed dead after a condo building’s sudden collapse in Surfside, Fla. (Video: Reuters)

5 p.m.: At the rubble pile, the drilling and searching continued.

“We’re dealing not only with the exposed elements of the structure itself, but voids and the continuous threats of collapse,” said Lt. Obed Frometa of the Miami-Dade search and rescue team.

In all, five dead people had been pulled from the site, 127 residents were accounted for and 159 remained missing, according to Levine Cava.

7:40 p.m.: As nightfall approached, some Jewish families in Florida, New York and New Jersey began their Sabbath observance 18 minutes early to honor those lost in the collapse, said Debra Golan, whose close friend Estelle Hedaya is among the missing. She, her family and others lit their candles at 7:40 rather than at sunset, at 7:58 p.m.

“Eighteen symbolizes life in Judaism, and we want to save all those lives,” Golan said. “It’s the little things we do,” she said, that preserve hope.

Reiley, Rozsa and Kornfield reported from Surfside; Fisher, from Washington. Silvia Foster-Frau, Joyce Lee, Antonio Olivo, Maria Paul, Whitney Shefte and David Suggs contributed to this report.

Story editing by Lori Montgomery. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design by Tara McCarty. Copy editing by Emily Codik.

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