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Biviana Faut (L) and Christian Faut comfort each other as they look on at the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25, 2021 in Surfside, Florida.

The Champlain Tower collapse has devastated the small oceanside town

The jolt came when Janette Aguero was in her pyjamas.

It was about 1.20am in Surfside Florida, where she, her husband Albert and their two children were midway through a family holiday, staying at her in-laws’ flat on the 11th floor of the Champlain Towers South.

She and Albert woke up to quaking walls, the chandelier dancing violently from the ceiling, and what sounded like a freight train flying by their room.

“I hear my son screaming in the living room ‘what the hell is going on’,” she said.

Other residents in the small seaside town, a stone’s throw from Miami, would later say they heard a boom. Some assumed the noise was thunder, a sign of summer in southern Florida. It was a hot and humid night, the dark sky smudged with passing clouds.

But then another boom sounded, louder this time, and left the ground shaking.

In less than 12 seconds, an entire wing of the Champlain Towers South condo building would be gone – 12 storeys and 55 apartments reduced to a burning heap of concrete and twisted steel, leaving untold numbers trapped inside.

It was to become one of the worst building collapse calamities in modern US history.

But in the moment, all Janette could think to do was run into the living room. She wondered: was it bad weather? Her New Jersey family had lived through Hurricane Sandy, but a storm that size hadn’t been forecast.

The Aguero family on holiday in SurfsideThe Aguero family on holiday in Surfside

The Aguero family had travelled to Surfside for a family holiday

Outside on the balcony residents called out to one another, checking in and asking what had happened. They could see the emergency rescue teams begin to arrive, their members shouting up to those still inside.

“They’re telling us: ‘get out immediately’,” Janette recalled.

The family of four began to run, making their way to the stairs. Down the hallway, to the left, they saw the side of the apartment sheared off. The roof now slanted downward, with two large holes exposing the dark night outside.

They rushed down the stairs, Albert shouting out the floor numbers as they ran.

Janette was gripped by panic. She thought: “There’s no doubt about it – we’re going to die here,” she told the BBC.

Nearby surveillance video would show the tower’s swift descent. First, the central section entered a free fall. Then, the east section followed.

Startled by the noise, those living nearby ran outside. Some thought they had heard a bomb going off.

“We saw people from their balconies asking for help and using their cell phone flashlights to get attention,” Juan Esteban Triana, who lives next door to the tower, told BBC Mundo. “I felt helpless and impotent that I couldn’t do anything else but watch,” he said.

The Agueros made it to the basement garage, and clawed their way through rubble to the pool deck. Once outside, people shouted out to them from somewhere in the dark, asking how they got out – but at that moment, Janette didn’t know how to help them.

“Those are the things that will haunt you,” she said.

Firefighters arrived from Engine 76 within 10 minutes, driving from the Bay Harbor Islands firehouse less than two miles away. But by then, the building was already gone – it had only taken 20 seconds before a cloud of ash and smoke had engulfed the site.

A fireman called back to dispatch: “The building is gone. There are no elevators, it’s… it’s nothing. It almost resembles the Trade Center.”

Rescue team search the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida,Rescue team search the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida,

More than a week after the collapse, rescue teams continue their search

Surfside is a tiny town, roughly eight blocks stretched out along one mile of public beach.

Champlain Towers sits on the town’s south end, the building’s eastern walls facing directly on to the Atlantic. Built in 1981, the condo was home to a few hundred residents, a mix of retired snowbirds – pensioners who flee south to Florida in the winter – young families and well-to-do professionals.

“It was my mom’s dream always to be able to have a place on the beach,” Pablo Rodriguez told the BBC – a dream realised when she moved to Champlain’s South Tower 10 years ago. She and Pablo’s grandmother are now among the missing.

A makeshift reunification centre was set up by around 02:00 local time. The Aguero family made their way there shortly after, ushered over by the rescue team that had set up camp on Collins Avenue. They sat there stunned for several hours, watching as relatives arrived throughout the early hours of the morning, desperate for information on their families.

“Everyone was calling everyone,” Janette said. The Champlain residents were a tight-knit community and the survivors worked with each other to piece together the little information they knew.

One woman arrived distraught at around 04:00, Janette said, screaming and crying looking for her ex-husband. She had been at the condo to pick up their kids just hours before it collapsed.

“I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it,” she told Janette.

Some other survivors made their way to the beach, where they huddled together, looking back at the ruins of their home.

A woman adds flowers to a memorial outside Champlain TowerA woman adds flowers to a memorial outside Champlain Tower

More than 100 people remain unaccounted for

Local emergency rooms prepared for an onslaught of patients, but few arrived.

Relatives of those who lived in the building were panicking – what on earth had happened?

“We got the call from my uncle in the morning, turned on the news, saw the pictures and started calling frantically,” Pablo told the BBC. He was “calling them, calling the city, calling anybody that would hear us, anybody that we can get in touch with” to find answers.

As the morning went on, the town became consumed by rescue efforts, its streets packed with emergency vehicles and news crews.

Teams of 10-12 rescuers at a time used sonar cameras and specially trained dogs as they combed the wreckage for people buried inside.

Even then, however, hopes for finding survivors were already muted. “The building is literally pancaked,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said on Thursday morning.

“That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean to me that we’re going to be… as successful as we would want to be to find people alive,” he said.

When evening came, the Agueros were moved to a nearby hotel. Numb and exhausted, they fell asleep in the same bed while, blocks away, search teams continued their efforts overnight.

The work was painstaking and made harder by intermittent storms, taking a toll on rescuers.

“We are human beings,” one told the BBC. “We do our best to get to them, but still, the thought that under all this concrete, all this steel, there is a person, maybe a little boy that is buried there, it is very difficult to forget.”

Pablo RodriguezPablo Rodriguez

Pablo Rodriguez has lost hope that his mother and grandmother could be found alive

At times, some members of the rescue team detected occasional banging noises. On the first day of the search, rescuers reported the sound of a woman’s voice. They searched for several hours until the sound was gone. No voices have been heard since.

Families of the missing were able to travel by bus to watch rescue teams on site, digging through the rubble. Some called out to the wreckage, shouting the names of their loved ones.

There are those for whom the sight of the flattened building has extinguished any hope of finding more survivors.

“I hope to God that they’re going to find somebody,” a Champlain resident told the BBC. “But man, if you saw what I saw… nothingness. And then, you go over there and you see all the rubble. How can somebody survive that?”

The Agueros are now back at home in New Jersey, but life has not returned to normal. They’ve lost their appetites, Janette said, sleep strange hours and avoid the news.

As of Friday afternoon – just over a week after the tower fell – 20 people had been confirmed dead, with at least 128 still unaccounted for. The victims include the seven-year-old daughter of a Miami firefighter, whose body was recovered on Thursday evening.

Rescuers have said they are holding out hope that someone is found alive, now more than seven days after the collapse.

For Pablo, that hope has been lost. Instead, he just hopes that the remains of his mother and grandmother can be found for a proper burial.

For Janette, there is some survivor’s guilt – but more so overwhelming confusion as to how this could have happened.

“How are these people sleeping in their homes, a structure they should feel safe in… it’s unbelievable,” she said. “Now I walk into any building, any structure and I think ‘am I safe here?'”

Additional reporting by Angélica Casas, Cecilia Barria, Eva Artesona, Sophie Long and Will Grant in Florida