UConn baseball player Justin Willis and his family survive 15-foot Florida condominium collapse


Justin Willis and his family were about to catch a flight to Miami home when he called late Saturday afternoon. Originally, they were supposed to return to North Jersey on Monday, but as UConn’s pitcher said, “How can you stay here on vacation and feel good about anything?”

Justin and his younger sister Athena were watching TV around 1:15 a.m. Thursday in the family condominium in Surfside, Fla., Watching a Spanish drama on Netflix. They heard three sounds. Each was louder and more frightening than the other.

The 12-story Champlain South Towers had partially collapsed and approximately 55 of the condos had fallen to the ground. By early Saturday evening, four were dead and 159 were still missing as rescuers continued to dig in the rubble and loved ones continued their excruciating wait for the slightest news of their loved ones.

Yet at first, sitting in Unit 1106, Willis only knew the sounds.

“It was like three gusts of wind,” he said on Saturday afternoon. “The first one was like a normal thunderstorm.”

After all, it is South Florida in the summer.

“The second was like how I remember Sandy,” he said. “I thought it was a hurricane, maybe the waves were going up.”

It would be Hurricane Sandy that ravaged New Jersey in 2012.

“Our sliding doors started to bend a bit, to give way,” Willis said. “The third felt like a jet was taking off just above our building.”

Albert and Janette Aguero were sleeping. As the unit shook and the 11th floor condo chandelier rocked back and forth, mom and dad walked in to check on Alex and Athena.

“From where I was sitting on the couch, I could already see a cloud of dust or smoke across the street,” Willis said. “You’re probably not supposed to, but we went out to the balcony to check on what was going on.”

It was not a thunderstorm. It was not an external fire. There was no jet taking off. A giant part of the complex had collapsed.

Willis worked two scoreless innings on May 30 in the Big East Championship game against Xavier. He had five strikeouts, a career-high, and earned the victory to push UConn into the NCAA tournament. His joy 26 days earlier had given way to panic.

“There were already firefighters on the street,” Willis said. “We were asking, ‘should we evacuate? And it was, ‘Yes, of course.’ We probably still don’t think it was our buildings.

There was no time to waste. Wallets and cell phones were seized. Albert later told reporters that they left behind passports, vaccination cards and even his wife’s wedding ring.

“As we opened the apartment door we looked to the left and the apartment to our left was completely in ruins,” Willis said. “The elevator shaft that was right in front of us, you could see it. The elevator doors were pushed open towards us.

“It was chaos on our floor. We’re like, we’re going to have to be faster than we thought. “

Fifteen feet to the right and the family of four could have perished. They went down the stairwell. Almost all of the other stages have been broken in one way or another. The right wall was cracked in places.

“You could see it across the street,” Willis said. “Obviously that wasn’t meant to be the case.”

On the sixth floor, Janette opened a door to allow three other people to climb the stairs. When they got to the third floor, there was an older woman who was having a hard time coming down the steps. Not wanting her to fall or get hit by other people, Willis and her father helped her down to the first floor.

“I think that was one of the most important things to get out of there,” Willis said. “It took us away from the fear and what was really going on. I think it calmed our minds a bit. If she doesn’t get out of here, we won’t get out of here.

When they got to the first floor, they found it had sunk at least three-four feet. There were pieces of concrete. There was debris.

“Once we got to the garage we had to help the older woman, carry her, carefully throw her out, do whatever we needed to do to get her to get over the rubble,” said Willis. “We almost fell into the bushes trying to push her over the wall. I was so grateful we got out of there and all she lost was a sandal.

Willis estimated it took 10 to 15 minutes to get from the 11th floor, through the garage, across the pool deck, and onto the beach away from the building in the event of another collapse.

They left the beach and the security guards allowed them to pass through the adjacent building. They were directed to a few blocks where Surfside had immediately set up some accommodation in a community center.

“Taking names, giving us water, it was amazing within minutes how quickly they responded,” said Willis.

At around 7 a.m., the American Red Cross began searching for hotel rooms, and at 2 p.m. the family ended up at a nearby Residence Inn. They stayed until Saturday.

“I don’t know if you call it thinking, but it definitely gives you a new goal,” Willis said. “It makes you realize that some of the things you stress about every day just aren’t worth it.

“People ask if evacuating so quickly and how has that helped us. The truth is, we haven’t done anything. Our part of the building is still standing.

Willis said the apartment was owned by his father’s parents and that they had been in Surfside the week before. Albert and Janette had been to the apartment several times, but it was Justin’s first time.

“We did an about-face with my grandparents,” said Willis. “Fortunately, they weren’t there for that. “

Condominium residents mirror Miami. There are a lot of them from Latin America. Members of the first Paraguayan family were there and are still missing. It was a particularly painful time for the Jewish community.

And for those who were able to get away?

“Trying to get back to normal is going to be something that will take a while,” Willis said. “We just have to learn to live with it.

Justin, who transferred to UConn from Vanderbilt a few years ago, needs a few more credits to get his Resource Economics degree. If nothing happens with professional baseball, he has another year of eligibility and would love to play another season at UConn. He’s scheduled to play for Keene, NH, in the New England Collegiate Baseball League this summer.

“I’ll think about it now to decide if it’s worth it,” Willis said. “If I have to do it, I will. I really want to play to clear my mind. I love baseball as much as anything. At the same time, after that, if I can have some time with my family before I go back to school, I want to take advantage of it.

“We’re fine, definitely shaken up. The crazy thing is, it was the first vacation, for the four of us together, since I was 13.

Willis went 4-0 last season with a 2.60 ERA in 16 appearances in the Jim Penders reliever box. He pitched 171/3 innings and struck out 20 catches while keeping his opponents at a batting average of .138. The numbers seem hard to tell, but at the same time, all normalcy has helped Justin Willis of West New York, NJ

“I put something in our (baseball) group chat around 2 a.m. when it happened and how grateful I was to God,” Willis said. “I’m sure most of them didn’t know what it was.

“I talked to a couple of guys and it was peaceful for me to ask them about the summer ball and talk about video games and not talk about it. Today they finally noticed when the coach put something in the group discussion to say a prayer for me and my family. One of the children said, “What happened? “”

These are two words, in the face of such an unthinkable tragedy, that many still ask.

[email protected]; @ jeffjacobs123

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