Residents and witnesses reported hearing what sounded like a bolt of lightning going off and some heard screaming after the partial collapse of a 12-story condominium building in Surfside, Florida, early Thursday.
Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the Champlain Towers South Condos on Collins Avenue when he first heard what he thought was a crack of lightning. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building's hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”
He and his wife eventually made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.
Officials have confirmed that at least one person was killed and efforts were underway to try to find any other survivors in the rubble.
At an evacuation site set up in a nearby community center, people who live in buildings neighboring the collapse gathered after being told to flee. Some wept. Some were still dressed in pajamas. Some children tried to sleep on mats spread on the floor. When a news conference about the collapse appeared on the TV, the room went silent.
Jennifer Carr was asleep in a neighboring building when she was awakened by a loud boom and her room shook. She thought it was a thunderstorm but checked the weather app on her phone and saw none. The building’s fire alarms went off, and she and her family went outside and saw the collapse.
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“It was devastation,” Carr said. “People were running and screaming.”
Nicolas Fernandez was waiting early Thursday for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.
“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to hep the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones."
Yehudis Stein, who lives near the building, said she could feel the ground move.
"Stunned. I thought it was a bomb at first, looking at it," Stein said. "It was just a loud sound, you could feel the ground move, it was, you know, something obviously that's not normal."
Resident Ofe Osin-Cohen, who lives on the building's fourth floor, said she heard a "weird sound," felt the building shake, then heard screaming as she evacuated the condo after the collapse.
"Unfortunately we did hear screams, I don't even want to think about it," Osin-Cohen said. "We did hear screams but I couldn't tell where they were coming from, from the rubble, from the apartments. People were on their balconies, waving flashlights, yelling to the firefighters, I'm not exactly sure where the sounds were coming from."
Brothers Mich and Shmuel Balkany said they were walking their dog near the building when it collapsed.
"We heard like a really big rumble and we think that it was like a motorcycle, you know, like classic, early in the morning, and we turn around and we just see like a cloud of dust coming our way," Shmuel Balkany said. "We put our shirts over our face so we don't get any dust in our eyes."
"Hard to believe that this is really happening. I've seen more than half of the building is gone, I think were gonna see a lot of fatalities, I think this is terrible, this community is going to take a long time to heal," Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer said. "We live in paradise, people come to Surfside because it's an amazing place to live, it's beautiful, and you never think it's gonna happen to you."