“They always left before me,” Miller added in an interview with The Washington Post. “They never stayed longer than I did.”
Bonnie explained they delayed their drive because of David’s arm injury. He was doing physical therapy in the area, and they wanted to complete the treatment before leaving.
Now, as Miller sits comfortably in his home in the Philadelphia area, he grapples with pangs of survivor’s guilt. He wonders how and why he — of all people — randomly decided to leave town earlier than usual while his friends made the opposite decision.
“Why did it happen that I wasn’t there in my apartment?” Miller said. “That was the place I usually would have been. I wasn’t there, and I made a decision to go away.”
Others, like Miller, fall into a category of survivors who happened to make simple decisions that would ultimately save their lives. One of them, Erick De Moura, 40, was planning to leave his girlfriend’s place Wednesday night when she convinced him to stay over.
Miller, a retired academic, bought his third-floor condo just over three years ago. For the past few years, he has left Florida at the end of June and spent a portion of the summer back in Philadelphia, where he still owns a house and where most of his friends still live. This time, he was planning to prepare to sell his house.
Miller adjusted his travel plans this year, he said. Months ago, he decided rather than driving up at the end of June, he’d book a train ticket for mid-month. As his departure date neared, Miller said he second-guessed his decision and thought about changing his plans to stay longer. But he ultimately relented — the hassle of changing the ticket wasn’t worth it, he thought.
The decision may have saved his life.
Miller learned of the condo collapse Thursday morning as he scrolled through news alerts on his phone.
“The first story is about a building collapse in Miami,” he said. “I look further and see that it’s in Surfside and I say: ‘Oh wow. I live in Surfside.’ I look further and see 88th Street and think: ‘That’s close to my apartment. I wonder what building that could be.' And I see 8777 and I’m like, ‘That’s my building.’ ”
About an hour later, Miller received a text from a neighbor.
“Where are you?” he recalled the text saying.
“I’m in Philly. What’s going on?” Miller responded.
“Your apartment is gone. There’s nothing there,” the neighbor said.
It was only then that the reality of the catastrophe sunk in. As the day went on, he started seeing pictures of missing residents, including neighbors who live on either side of his unit.
Then Miller thought of the Epsteins. He texted them twice. No answer.
“And at one point, I’m looking through social media and saw their picture and a message that they’re missing,” Miller said. “That was the reality. People are gone.”
He also saw pictures of a few neighbors he bonded with during their daily laps in the building’s swimming pool. There were many mornings that Miller would chat with Marina Azen, 77, and Graciela Cattarossi, 48, about the latest happenings in the building.
As the tally of missing friends and familiar faces grows, he becomes more overwhelmed, Miller said, and he gets “distraught” when he thinks of the magnitude of the collapse.
“It’s sort of like, you lose a friend, somebody dies — it’s a normal cycle of life,” Miller said. “But when you’ve got all these people and you see people are dead and you should have been in there with them, and you weren’t — that’s kind of a really shocking thing for you and you think, ‘By all rights, I should have been there.’ ”
He added that with every news article and TV broadcast about the collapse, he gets a “pit in my stomach. It’s just this gnawing in my stomach and that very rarely happens to me.”
Miller decided to put off his plans to sell his house in Philadelphia. He’s going to stay put for a while and take advantage of the support system of friends he has nearby. But there are moments when he feels a pull to return to Miami — to be among his fellow survivors.
Despite the trauma that awaits him at the site of his now-crumbled apartment, Miller still wants to spend his retirement there.
“I do think frequently about how lucky I am,” Miller said. “I don’t know if it’s going to make me change my life. But I know how the people died in there and I think I’m extraordinarily lucky that I happened to not be there.”