Justin Willis and his family were about to board a flight in Miami for home when he called late Saturday afternoon. They originally were scheduled to return to North Jersey on Monday, yet as the UConn pitcher said, “How can you stay here on vacation and feel good about anything?”
Justin and his younger sister Athena were in front of the television around 1:15 a.m. Thursday in the family’s 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 Towers South had partially collapsed and an estimated 55 of the condos had fallen to the ground. As of early Saturday evening, four were dead and 159 still were unaccounted for as rescue workers continued to dig through rubble and relatives continued their excruciating wait for any word of their loved ones.
Yet at first, sitting in Unit 1106, all Willis knew were the sounds.
1of9UConn pitcher Justin Willis
UConn athletics / Contributed photoShow MoreShow Less 2of9UConn pitcher Justin Willis
UConn athletics / Contributed photoShow MoreShow Less 3of9 4of9Willis
UConn athletics / Contributed photoShow MoreShow Less 5of9SURFSIDE, FLORIDA – JUNE 24: A portion of the 12-story condo tower crumbled to the ground during a partially collapse of the building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. It is unknown at this time how many people were injured as search-and-rescue effort continues with rescue crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joe Raedle / Getty ImagesShow MoreShow Less 6of9 7of9SURFSIDE, FLORIDA – JUNE 24: A portion of the 12-story condo tower crumbled to the ground during a partial collapse of the building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. It is unknown at this time how many people were injured as search-and-rescue effort continues with rescue crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joe Raedle / Getty ImagesShow MoreShow Less 8of9SURFSIDE, FLORIDA – JUNE 26: Members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 26, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. Over 150 people are being reported as missing as search-and-rescue efforts continue with rescue crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joe Raedle / Getty ImagesShow MoreShow Less 9of9 “It was like three gusts of wind,” he said Saturday afternoon. “The first one was like a normal thunderstorm.”
After all, this is South Florida in the summer.
“The second one was like how I remember Sandy,” he said. “I thought it was a hurricane, maybe the waves were pushing up.”
That would be the Hurricane Sandy that ravaged New Jersey in 2012.
“Our sliding doors started to bend a little, started to give,” Willis said. “The third one felt like a jet was taking off right above our building.”
Albert and Janette Aguero were asleep. As the unit shook and the chandelier on the 11th floor condo was swinging back and forth, mom and dad came 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 do it, but we went out to the balcony to check out what was going on.”
This was no thunderstorm. This was no outside 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 a career-high five strikeouts and picked up the win to push UConn into the NCAA Tournament. His joy of 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’re probably still not thinking it was our buildings.”
Family staying in collapsed Florida apartment building speak out: “Honestly I was prepared for the building to come down.”@tjholmes https://t.co/I7VDTaOIjo pic.twitter.com/1xpeXcuE8S
— Good Morning America (@GMA) June 25, 2021 There was no time to waste. Wallets and cellphones were grabbed. Albert later told reporters they left behind passports, vaccination cards, and even his wife’s wedding ring.
“As we opened the door to the apartment, we looked to the left and the apartment to the left of us was completely in shambles,” Willis said. “The elevator shaft that was right in front of us, you could see out of it. The elevator doors were pushed in toward us.
“It was chaos on our floor. We’re like, we’re going to have to be quicker than we thought we’d have to be.”
Fifteen feet to the right and the family of four could have perished. They headed down the stairwell. Almost every other step was broken in some way. The wall to the right was cracked in places.
“You could see out to the street,” Willis said. “Obviously, that wasn’t supposed to be the case.”
On the sixth floor, Janette opened a door to allow three more people onto the stairs. When they got to the third floor, there was an older woman having a difficult time getting down the steps. Not wanting her to fall or get knocked over by other people, Willis and his dad helped her down to the first floor.
“I think it was one of the most important things of getting out of there,” Willis said. “It took our mind off the fear and what was actually going on. I think it kind of eased our minds a little bit. If she wasn’t getting out of here, we’re not getting out of here.”
When they got to the bottom floor, they found it had sunk at least three-four feet. There were chunks of concrete. There was debris.
“Once we got to the garage, we had to help the older woman, carry her, carefully throw her, do whatever we had to do to get her over the rubble,” Willis said. “We almost fell in some bushes trying to get her over the wall. I was so thankful 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, through the pool deck and get onto the beach away from the building in case of another collapse.
They left the beach and the security guards allowed them to walk through the adjacent building. They were directed a few blocks where Surfside immediately had set up some accommodations in a community center.
“Taking names, giving us water, it was amazing in minutes how quickly they responded,” Willis said.
At about 7 a.m. the American Red Cross started looking for hotel rooms and by 2 p.m. the family found themselves in a nearby Residence Inn. They stayed until Saturday.
“I don’t know if you call it reflecting, but it definitely gives you some new purpose,” Willis said. “It makes you realize some of the things you stress about every day are just not worth it.
“People are asking about evacuating so quickly and how did it help us. The truth is we didn’t do anything. Our part of the building is still standing.”
Willis said the condo belongs to his dad’s parents and they were at Surfside the week before. Albert and Janette had been down to the condo on a number of occasions, but this was Justin’s first time.
“We flip-flopped with my grandparents,” Willis said. “Thankfully, they weren’t here for this.”
The condominiums’ residents reflect Miami. There are many from Latin America. Members of Paraguay’s first family were there and remain missing. It has been a particularly painful time for the Jewish community.
And for those who were able to walk away?
“Trying to get back to normal is going to be something that will take some time,” Willis said. “We’ve just got to learn to live with it.”
Justin, who transferred to UConn from Vanderbilt a few years ago, needs a couple more credits to graduate in resource economics. If nothing happens with pro baseball, he has another year of eligibility and would love to play another season at UConn. He is supposed to play for Keene, N.H., in the New England Collegiate Baseball League this summer.
“I’m going to think about it now to decide if it’s worth it,” Willis said. “If I have to do it, I will. I definitely want to play to take my mind off it. I love baseball as much as anything. At the same time, after this, if I can have some time with my family before I go back to school, I want to take it.
“We’re doing all right, definitely shaken up. What’s crazy is this was the first vacation, for all four of us together, since I was like 13.”
Willis went 4-0 this past season with a 2.60 ERA in 16 appearances out Jim Penders’ bullpen. He threw 171/3 innings and struck out 20 while holding opponents to a .138 batting average. The numbers feel awkward to relate, yet at the same time any normalcy has helped Justin Willis of West New York, N.J.
“I put something in our (baseball) group chat at about 2 in the morning 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 like two-three guys and it was peaceful for me to ask them about summer ball and talk about video games and not have it brought up. Today, they finally noticed when coach put something in the group chat to say a prayer for me and my family. One of the kids said, ‘What happened?’ ”
Those are two words, in the face of such unthinkable tragedy, so many still are asking.