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Surfside Resident Who Survived Condominium Collapse Wants Answers

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Rescuers are in a desperate bid to try and find survivors in Surfside, Fla., amid the wreckage of the Champlain Towers condo building. They have been hampered by torrential rain and fires and have had to move with excruciating care. So far, only five people have been confirmed dead. And 156 people are still unaccounted for. Many families are still holding out hope that their loved ones will be found alive. We're going to hear now from one of the survivors of that collapse. And a warning, this is a harrowing conversation but an important one. Susana Alvarez is 62. Her apartment was on the 10th floor and she knew many people in the building she had lived in for years.

Susana, I want to ask you, first of all, how are you doing?

SUSANA ALVAREZ: Not well. I'm very, very emotional. Everything I owned was in that apartment, but I don't care. I left my cat behind. And that, to me, is the worst thing, and that's all I want back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were in the building when it collapsed. Can you tell us what happened?

ALVAREZ: I was in bed, and I heard a tremor. I really didn't think anything of it. I thought, oh, tomorrow on the news, we're going to hear about, you know, tremors in Florida. But it wasn't even a minute that went by when it was - my bed started to shake like if I was on a - like I was on a ride. I mean, the bed was shaking. My balcony doors opened. And it felt like the longest thunder I had ever heard in my life. And at that point, I got up, and I said, wow. I closed the balcony doors. I don't even know why. I don't know why I grabbed my phone. I don't know because I grabbed nothing else. And I ran out the front door.

And I - my apartment is in the front of the building, and it's right across the elevators. And there were no elevators, just open holes. And it was just a lot - what looked like smoke, which must've been dust. And - so I went around the corner, and that's when I saw that the building was missing. There was nothing there, and people were screaming. I could hear them screaming. At that point, I turned around. And there was maybe two apartments left in my floor, and I banged on their doors. They came out, and then I said, we got to get out of here.

And the fire escape door wouldn't open, but I saw people on the other side, and I banged. And they opened it, and I just ran. I went with the people. I just ran out. I left the cat behind, and I ran out. And I ran, and I ran. And we went down the stairs. And the stairs were all full of rubble. And then we - I don't know where I came out to, but there were cars that were all, you know, with rocks and stuff on them, crashed. And there was water - a lot of water. And I don't know - we just - we climbed out of rubble. We climbed out of rubble. And there were two men and a young man with us, and they were helping us. And there was an older lady and they were helping us out of the rubble. And when we got outside again, all I could hear were the people screaming. They were screaming, help, help. Someone help us. They were screaming. There was people alive in there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is, of course, the middle of the night, so it's dark.

ALVAREZ: Yes, but there was a full moon, so that made it even worse. There was light, but it was the eeriness of it. I thought a bomb - I mean, that was my first - when I saw that building missing, I mean, I was like, I have to get out of here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where are you staying right now?

ALVAREZ: I am near the building. I won't leave. I won't leave. And again, I'm staying in the area. I have friends in Surfside.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And have you been back to the building? What did you see?

ALVAREZ: Yes, I go every day. But, I mean, I can't get into the building. I go as near as I can. And the building was covered with smoke - smoke everywhere. It's just so emotional. I - and I just want my cat back. I mean, I know that sounds silly, but that's all I want, my cat back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It doesn't sound silly. Your cat's name was Mia (ph), right?

ALVAREZ: Yes. Yes. And I should've gone back for her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you know if you'd done that, you might have lost your life.

ALVAREZ: I know that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You did the only thing you could.

ALVAREZ: I was only thinking of myself. I was only thinking of getting out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was an unimaginable situation. What are the survivors - you know, you - who managed to get out, what are you talking about? What are you thinking at this moment? Have you been able to sort of gather and sort of think about what's next?

ALVAREZ: I'll be all right. I have a good job, and I'm not destitute. But I am homeless right now. But I'll - I know I can get myself back up on my feet. I know it. But the kindness of people has been phenomenal. From the man who hugged me when I went out there to that beach, and I was all alone out there - and I have no idea who he was - to the security guard in the building next door - the luxury building next door who came out and grabbed me and said, you're coming with me. All my friends were giving me luggage and clothes and things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People are good.

ALVAREZ: They are. They are. During times like this, they are very good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been a lot of news coming out about why this might have happened. An engineer apparently warned the building's condo association of major structural damage back in 2018. Was any of that shared with the rest of residents? I mean, did you have any idea that the building was unsound?

ALVAREZ: Not to that extent. And I want you to know that in 2018, we had a board meeting. And we sat there with the town of Surfside. And the town of Surfside said to us that the building was not in bad shape, that the building was not in bad shape. That is what they said, OK? The structural engineer has been around for a while. We took out $15 million to fix that building at his say-so. No one ever, ever, ever told us that this - that that building was in such bad shape - no one, no one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does that make you think?

ALVAREZ: It makes me think that the engineer did not properly do his work. I mean, this doesn't just happen. This was in a matter of seconds, out of nowhere.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like you want answers.

ALVAREZ: I want answers. Yes, I want answers. I want major answers. That was my home. I was going to retire there. That was my home. I thought it was a wonderful property because I was so happy. I had this beautiful condo by the beach. And please understand that I don't care - everything I lost in that condo, including my parents' wedding rings and my father's 18-karat gold watch from Cuba that was engraved and all that - I don't care. I had just taken all of my mother's pictures - all the pictures of our family to that condo two days before that because I was going to sort them all out. I don't care about that. I only care about the cat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Susana, I'm so sorry for everything you've lost.

ALVAREZ: I can't imagine. I can't imagine. Those are our neighbors. Those are people I say hello to. The lady that was in the elevator with me before I went to bed that night, before I went to - home for the evening - we were talking. She did - to yoga with me. They were the nicest couple. They always wanted me to go out, ride bikes with them. And their daughter was staying there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they're gone?

ALVAREZ: Yes. Yes. I also want you to know that that couple - that they keep saying in the news that 1001 - it's a man and his wife - that the niece was visiting them - they were the nicest people, the nicest people, were always - I'm by myself. I have no family. I lived there by myself. They were always, always offering assistance. Always.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like it was a very good community.

ALVAREZ: It was. It was. The people that lived there were good, good people that didn't deserve this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Susana Alvarez, thank you very much for talking with us.

ALVAREZ: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you just heard there, Ms. Alvarez said that the residents of Champlain Towers were reassured by a representative from the town of Surfside that the building was safe. We reached out to a Surfside spokesperson for a response but did not hear back. However, NPR has been able to confirm that the meeting did take place in 2018. And we'll have more details on that, plus more information on the collapse and what it might mean for other similarly constructed buildings in the area elsewhere in the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH TANDY'S "HALF BLUE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And for more information or to report the status of Champlain Tower residents who are unaccounted for, please call 305-614-1819 or 305-993-1071.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH TANDY'S "HALF BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.