For UConn pitcher Justin Willis, escape from Surfside condo 'put life into a different perspective for me'

As a reliever this past season for the UConn Huskies, Justin Willis went 4-0 with a 2.60 ERA in 16 games. UConn was eliminated in the NCAA regionals on June 6, less than three weeks before Willis and his family would escape from Champlain Towers South. Rob Tringali for ESPN

Editor's note: This story originally was posted July 30, 2021. After surviving the tower collapse, Justin Willis spent last summer with his family. He returned to the UConn baseball team for the 2022 season and got the save in the Huskies' 11-8 win against Maryland as UConn won the College Park Regional and advanced to the Stanford Super Regional."

ALL JUSTIN WILLIS saw was the ocean. Peering down a dark hallway, through a hole in the wall, outside of his grandparents' 11th-floor condo in Surfside, Florida, he saw water and nothing else. Nearby, he could see through the top half of a neighbor's mangled door. The rest of that apartment, what he expected to see behind the door, was severed and gone.

Willis, a University of Connecticut baseball player, knew he and his family had to get out, somehow, and make their way toward the ocean. And he wasn't alone. Several floors below, Esther Gorfinkel knew she had to get out too. Gorfinkel, 88, had never met Willis, 22, but they suddenly, urgently, had everything in common.

Moments earlier, in the early-morning hours of June 24, Willis and his 14-year-old sister, Athena, were still awake and watching TV. Willis, a right-handed reliever for the Huskies, had watched Vanderbilt beat Stanford 6-5 in the College World Series then stayed up to catch a show on Netflix. Their family was on vacation just 2½ weeks after UConn's season had come to an end in the NCAA regionals.

Three loud bangs roused Willis from the living room couch. They came in succession, starting with the familiar boom of what sounded like a coastal storm, escalating until Willis thought a jet was taxiing on the roof. His parents, Albert and Janette Aguero, jumped out of bed. They didn't know what was happening either. His father went to the balcony. Firefighters had arrived below. Concrete dust filled the air. Get out!, a firefighter shouted. So they headed through double doors that led to the hallway, still perplexed -- wondering whether it was a hurricane or the echoes of damage to a neighboring building. Albert and Justin took only their phones and wallets, and Janette and Athena grabbed their phones and water bottles.

That's when they looked 15 feet away, two doors down, and saw the Atlantic Ocean.

The 12-story, 136-unit Champlain Towers South had partially collapsed. Willis and his family engineered a harrowing escape from what remained of the tower, combining gumption with luck. As vacationers rather than residents, they had no idea that the garage-level hole they escaped through wasn't previously there. And they were fortunate that the stairs they took to that garage were unobstructed.

"It was literally," Albert said later, "the only way out."

More than anything, though, they were lucky to happen upon Esther Gorfinkel, who was on the brink of surrender.

They helped save her life on a night that forever changed theirs.

IN THE PITCH-BLACK outside apartment 1106, there was silence. No sirens befitting the chaos that had arrived. No automated voice repeating emergency directions. The electricity was out. The elevators were reduced to hollowed-out shafts. Next to those shafts was the door to the stairwell with an exit sign that remained lit.

As the family of four descended, Albert led the way, and Janette brought up the rear to protect the children. Moonlight seeped through the crumbling walls of the stairwell.

Albert began to count.

We're at 10.

Are you guys still there?

We're at eight.

You back there?

We're at six.

When they reached the sixth floor, they heard pleas from people hoping to escape. Janette wrenched open a door that had jammed, allowing three people from that floor to join.

When they arrived on the third floor, there was Esther Gorfinkel, who had lived in her fifth-floor condo for nearly four decades. Wearing sandals and a nightgown, she had fled with only a flashlight. Her late husband, a World War II veteran, had once told her to never look back toward trouble.

"When I was trying to even look for an exit door, I went to my left because it was along there ... an exit door there to go in the steps," Gorfinkel remembered. "I saw destruction. Then I could see a little bit of the sky. And then I know something wrong happened. And I went to the right, and I opened [that] door and I went to [those] stairs."

The stairwell was chaotic. Alfredo Lopez and his family, from the sixth floor, were there. Another woman, who had held Gorfinkel's hand for a bit, asked Willis and his family to take over. Gorfinkel needed help to keep moving fast enough. For her, it was all a blur.

"I said to them, 'I just turned 88 and look what happened,'" Gorfinkel said.

Willis said he took one of her arms, and Albert took the other.

"At that point, she was like, 'I've lived a good life. You guys can go,'" Albert remembered. He told her she'd make it to her 89th birthday.

"This isn't it for you," he said.

They guided her down to a basement-level garage, where water touched their calves. There was, they remembered, nowhere to go. The ramp that headed out to the street had been destroyed. But they noticed a hole in the structure, likely opened by the shifting building, that they could escape through if they could scale three feet of concrete with Gorfinkel in tow.

"I couldn't walk because my back hurt and my feet hurt," Gorfinkel later remembered.

Willis said he jumped ahead and pulled her over and through some bushes, with his father lifting her up from below and his mother guiding her. Three feet separated safety and doom. According to Willis, he then lifted her in the air to clear a railing. Gorfinkel lost a sandal in the bushes, he said, but they had to press on toward the beach. They were still underneath the building.

Unfamiliar with the layout of the towers -- the apartment had been in the family for three years, but this was the first trip for all four of them together -- the group overshot the lobby, which was obstructed anyway, and didn't know that there was no planned exit in the garage.

"There were survivors who were taken out on the cherry pickers from balconies later ... who have been residents for 15-plus years, who were yelling at us from balconies when they saw us climbing out of the rubble, saying, 'How did you get out?'" Janette said.

"And we kept telling them, 'The stairs, the stairs.' And they're yelling, 'But the door [to the lobby] won't open.' I think they knew, instinctively, that they couldn't go to the ground level because there was no way they were going to trap themselves in the garage."

After making it through that hole, they were outside the building but not yet to safety. They feared the rest of the building would topple too.

"It definitely didn't register in my mind that we're still under the building," Willis said. "I'm like, 'All right, we're outside. I can't think that it's going to fall forward,' which, logically, it definitely could."

They headed out to the pool area close to the beach and faced another obstacle. The collapsed deck had created a 4-foot gap with the pool, still intact. Willis said he picked up Gorfinkel while Albert jumped the gap, then slung Gorfinkel up to his father and to safety. "It was a sigh of relief," Willis said.

They headed to the sand near the building, past the gate that surrounded the pool, through a grassy area with barbecue grills and down a short path -- close enough to see the horror of what they had escaped but far enough away to avoid any further collapse.

But Gorfinkel couldn't go any farther. She made it beyond the gate, where she spotted a picnic bench.

"I need to sit down," she said. "I'm going to have a heart attack."

THEY SNAPPED PICTURES from the beach. That's how they knew how long it had been. Janette's photo was time-stamped at 1:36 a.m. Albert's said 1:38. They remember leaving their condo at 1:25. They knew how fortunate they were. So they stood on that beach processing their fear, mourning and shock. Their survival was a game of inches. "The beach has always been my safe haven, so I felt I'd be safe there," Albert said. "How much more could happen?"

While they gathered themselves on the sand, Gorfinkel stayed behind with Lopez and his family until medical personnel arrived. Willis and his family made sure the right people knew to find her. They took her away from the building and across the street to check her blood pressure. She had not had a heart attack. Gorfinkel's son got a call and went to pick her up.

The family eventually found the street through a neighboring building and headed to nearby Harding Avenue, where a woman with a suitcase told them that she was packed and ready for something like this to happen. She left after the first bang and watched part of the building disintegrate.

Shortly after, they arrived at the Town of Surfside Community Center on 93rd Street and Collins Avenue, just five blocks from Champlain Towers South. Dozens of other people already were there, leading Willis' family to believe that they'd also survived the collapse. They were hopeful. But unbeknownst to them, officials had evacuated an adjacent building too. Police arrived and asked for people from the adjacent building to separate from those who came from Champlain Towers South.

More than 50 people stood up and moved, Janette and Albert remembered.

"There's seven of us [from Champlain Towers South]," Janette later said. "Seven."

Many of the rest were unaccounted for.

"Watching the people at 6 in the morning come into the [community center] and say, 'Hey, so-and-so, I'm here for them,' and they just start bawling their eyes out [when that person wasn't there]," Willis said. "That really hit home."

They stayed there until 6:30 a.m., processing those 11 minutes. Albert had to talk to police, and the rest of the family went to see the building, staring at what they had overcome. Albert didn't follow. He wanted to stare at something else.

The sunrise.

TWO DAYS LATER, as Willis and his family were at Miami International Airport about to board a flight home, Albert Aguero got a call from the Special Victims Unit wanting to know if they were alive. Two days after that, they were home in North Bergen, New Jersey, a dense neighborhood not far from the western bank of the Hudson River where they rode out Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Willis remembered friends from nearby Hoboken who lost their houses and others who still stare at the patches of moss and fungus in their basements, a reminder of catastrophic flooding.

He likened the second loud bang he heard in Florida to what he had heard during Sandy, when they lost power for nine days.

For him, the building collapse was different. It was quick but everlasting. Willis said there's only one feeling comparable to fleeing down those steps: pitching. When on the mound, he has tunnel vision. Sometimes he doesn't recall how things happened. In a game at Minute Maid Park in Houston during his freshman year at Vanderbilt, before he transferred to UConn, he entered with the bases loaded and one out and got out of the jam. He doesn't remember any of it.

"I completely blacked out," Willis said of that March 3, 2018, appearance against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Willis said most of the escape from the Florida condo was a blur -- the scramble out of the apartment, the frenzied descent. Some parts of the journey felt like seconds, a fight-or-flight rush of fear and adrenaline. Other parts might as well have lasted hours.

But Willis does remember some specific details and what it was like for his family to help save Esther Gorfinkel. No, he didn't say they saved a life -- but he described scaling the gap by the pool. He remembered the angle of his foot as he stepped on a stray concrete block. He recalled the wall he used for leverage and where his father was positioned.

He remembered the relief when everyone, including Gorfinkel, made it to safety.

"That's when you feel all right," he said.

ONE MONTH AFTER the collapse, firefighters called off their search for bodies. Ninety-eight people died. Authorities have identified all of the the victims. Willis and his family were among the survivors. Rescue crews from as far away as Israel and Mexico had helped the search. Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of Champlain Towers South families who want answers from the condominium association, which was informed of a 2018 inspection that found "major structural damage" at the property, notably to that same pool deck from where Willis, his family and Gorfinkel narrowly escaped. Janette said the family is part of a class-action lawsuit.

Albert said that his parents, the owners of the unit, had recently received an $80,000 assessment for repairs on the building. He said the family was under the impression that the money would help spruce up the aesthetics rather than fortify the structure. They thought that it was to keep up with the newer buildings that went up nearby. What remained of Champlain Towers South, the building in which Albert's parents had hoped to retire, was demolished.

They are grateful to have survived.

"A lot of things just aligned however they did for us," Janette said. "I still don't know how, really."

Willis was scheduled to play for the Keene Swamp Bats in the New England Collegiate Baseball League this summer. He also was asked to head to the Cape Cod Baseball League. But he decided not to play at all, opting to spend more time with his family. It has been a lot for the family to process, including Willis, who tore his ACL playing basketball after arriving at UConn in the fall of 2019. Then COVID-19 hit before that spring's baseball season. But he has support.

Willis said that a number of people have reached out to him from UConn's administration, which offered immediate support and counseling. His teammates have peppered the Huskies' group chat with inspirational messages. Longtime UConn baseball coach Jim Penders texted with Willis on the day of the tragedy, before the pair had subsequent phone calls. Willis told Penders he was grateful to be alive.

"It has put life into a different perspective for me," Willis said.

"I'm sure he's going to have a reckoning at some point," Penders said.

Willis already has felt some aftereffects of the trauma. When he got in the shower at the New Jersey apartment, the bathroom lights flickered, triggering a memory of the tower collapse and sending him into a momentary panic.

That morning in Florida has stuck with his family too. In late July, the family vacationed at Marriott's Aruba Surf Club, where Albert's parents owned a timeshare. One day, a fire alarm went off at 5 a.m. They looked at each other in horror. Janette has had trouble sleeping. She'd wake up in the middle of the night, her nails clawing at the mattress, thinking that the bed was shaking. A thunderclap will be a bit too reminiscent of the noise that accompanied the severed building.

Athena heard the booms and saw the ocean too. She was in the hallway and in the stairwell. She escaped through the garage, sprinting ahead of her family and Gorfinkel -- the first one out.

She wants to be an architect when she grows up.

A WEEK AFTER the collapse, Esther Gorfinkel logged on to a Zoom call arranged by her granddaughter at the South Florida home of her son, Marcos, with whom she was staying after she lost everything. It was late morning, and she was already tired.

She talked about the life she had before part of the building came down, the in-home nurse who visited her condo, the white patio furniture you could see from a distance. On that night, Gorfinkel thought it was raining because she had heard what she thought was thunder. Then the bed moved, and so did the apartment. She thought of her neighbors.

"The first night [after the collapse]," she said, "I have a little bit of trouble falling asleep. [I'm] thinking of the people that ... are not coming out. Some friends that I have, they never came out."

Willis and his family had lost touch with Gorfinkel when they separated on their way to the beach. Upon returning to New Jersey, they were processing their own trauma. The thunderstorms came and went.

But shortly after they got home, Albert received a text from Marcos, who said he was thankful that the family had helped save his mother's life. He asked if he could arrange a call. Gorfinkel spoke to Albert, with Willis listening in, about the escape and what has come next. At 88, Gorfinkel started from scratch. No ID, no eyeglasses, no home. She lost it all.

Reflecting on the escape, Gorfinkel said several people helped her along the way, including Lopez, her neighbor from the sixth floor. In the rush to get out, she said, some of the details ran together for her, but she knew one thing for sure.

"There's no words that can express whatever you feel when a person helps to save your life," Gorfinkel said.

She paused.

"I also think I would ... give a thank-you in person."

Then, she cried.