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How I escaped from Florida condo collapse

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A college baseball standout from New Jersey was among the survivors of last week’s disastrous building collapse in South Florida.

UConn pitcher Justin Willis was staying at the Champlain Towers condominium complex in Surfside, Florida, with his family on a vacation. Willis described being up late playing video games with his sister, Athena Aguero, when they felt their apartment shake. Shortly after 1 a.m. on Thursday, a wing of the high-rise building collapsed, leaving at least 10 dead and more than 150 missing.

“It felt like a first gust of wind from a storm,” Willis told the Hartford Courant. “Then the second one felt kind of like (Hurricane) Sandy, the way I remember it. 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.” 

Dust and debris poured into the apartment on the 11th floor, which belonged to Willis’ grandparents. Willis estimates he and his sister were a mere 15 feet away from the edge of the collapse.

“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,” Willis’ father, Albert Aguero, told NBC 4 New York. “Panic starts to set in, like we need to really run, because I don’t know if the rest of it is coming down.” 

Search and rescue personnel search for survivors through the rubble at the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida.
Rescue workers survey the nightmare scene at the collapsed Champlain Towers building.
AP

Willis and his family said their harrowing escape from the building took 15 minutes and they were able to help several other residents on the way downstairs. When Willis’ family reached the sixth floor, they heard a group of people frantically banging on a jammed fire door. Willis’ mom, Janette Aguero, managed to pry the door loose. 

Minutes later, on the third floor, the family encountered an elderly woman praying in Spanish by herself. They helped lead the woman to safety, assisting her through the flooded garage and over a parade of broken tiles. The family at last escaped the building at 1:38 a.m., according to a photo Willis took on his phone.

Justin Willis delivers a pitch for the University of Connecticut.
Justin Willis, a right-handed pitcher for UConn, escaped from the Champlain Towers in Surfside, Fla.
Stephen Slade

“Once we reached the beach, it kind of settled in,” Willis said. “Like, wow, what just happened? I didn’t even think about it in the moment. I didn’t look back at the building. 

“It just gives you a new sense. I’ve always been a positive kid. I like to think I’ve had some unreal experiences in baseball and what my parents have sacrificed for me, but it definitely gives you a new meaning.” 

Willis, a right-hander from West New York, N.J., just finished his junior season having compiled a 4-0 record with a 2.60 ERA. Willis began his collegiate career at acclaimed pitching factory Vanderbilt, and transferred after his sophomore year.

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