‘Can someone help me get out?’ 911 calls from Surfside condo collapse

Emergency calls released by police detail residents who watched as the building began to collapse.
The partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Florida Thursday, June 24, 2021.
The partially collapsed Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Florida Thursday, June 24, 2021. [ LANNIS WATERS, (LANNIS WATERS / THE PALM BEACH/PALM BEACH POST | Lannis Waters, (LANNIS WATERS  ]
Published July 14, 2021

The first few calls to 911 started at 1:16 a.m. and there was little urgency. A woman calmly reported she heard an explosion. An alarm company noted a fire alarm had sounded.

But within minutes, as water was gushing through the parking garage over the pool deck and dropping chunks of concrete, the scope of the unfolding disaster at Surfside’s Champlain Towers South began to emerge. Caller after caller began frantically relaying their stories to emergency dispatchers. One woman could be heard saying “it’s an earthquake outside.”

“Holy s--t. We gotta get outta here. Hurry up. Hurry up. There’s a big explosion,” one man told 911. He couldn’t describe what exactly was happening. “I don’t know, there’s a lot of smoke going in, I can’t see right now. Gotta get out of here. Gotta get outta here.”

When the operator asks if a bridge collapsed, the man responded, “No, a building.” The 911 operator repeated “a building” — sounding shocked herself.

The Miami-Dade police department on Wednesday released a batch of 911 calls from the Surfside condo collapse that killed at least 96 people. The calls offer a window into the harrowing first moments during and after the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South, one of the deadliest building failures in U.S. history. The 12-story, 136-unit building collapsed in the middle of the night, killing at least 96 residents and visitors as they slept in a cascade of concrete and steel.

Related: Collapsed condo: weighing how to honor dead at 'holy site'

By 1:25 a.m., the building collapse was complete, the east-side portion of the structure having pancaked on itself in an unprecedented fashion.

The 911 calls flooded in. At 1:25 a.m., a resident from Unit 505 described a panicked scene of neighbors and family members scrambling down blocked staircases, detouring around the flooded parking garage. The caller, Louis Tinoco, said the garage was quickly filling with debris.

Tinoco, his wife and his son John made their way to the second floor, but were still 20 or 30 feet off the ground. “There are people in the rubble, yelling,” he said.

In the background, faint screams of “help” could be heard.

“They are screaming they are stuck,” he said. “Is it safe for us to stay here?”

He knocked on doors of neighbors in an attempt to access the side of the building that faces Collins Avenue. “Nobody is opening,” he said.

“If there is a safe way to get through a first-floor balcony and you know no one is in [the condos] break through the door if you can,” the operator suggested.

Eventually, Tinoco, his wife and his son John made it “on top of the rubble,” Tinoco said.

“Come on, you can do it,” he said, encouraging his family. “Go, go, go, go John, we are going to the beach, we are going to the beach.”

Also at 1:25 a.m., a woman who escaped her Champlain Towers South condo called 911 in tears from the street outside. She was so rattled she couldn’t remember her own phone number. The woman said she woke up “because I was hearing some noise” and looked outside to see the building starting to collapse.

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“I could not understand what was happening. I looked outside and I saw the pool area started sinking down,” she said. “There are many parts of the building that went down. The building went into a sinkhole. There will be many, many people dead ... "

In the background, people wailed: “Oh my God, oh my God.”

She continued: “Oh my god, the whole building collapsed.”

Dispatchers warned people who had climbed down to not return to their units.

A caller from 8888 Collins Ave, an apartment building across the street from Champlain Towers South, called to report the building “completely smoking.” She said she didn’t see the fire, just a lot of smoke.

“There are people inside,” she said. “I see the lights on. It looks like a “building went under the ground.”

Another woman, breathlessly told dispatchers she had made it to the parking lot. “Half the building collapsed,” she said. “Can someone help me get out please?”

The collapse spurred an unprecedented search-and-rescue mission, complicated by unstable conditions and stormy weather in the days following the tragedy. A portion of the tower that remained standing had to be demolished on July 4, allowing teams to reach a greater portion of the site.

Related: Florida regulator requests data on Champlain Towers South insurance policies

The calls were released by Miami-Dade police, which is spearheading the investigation into the deaths. Another 11 people remain unaccounted for, police say. The probe into why the building collapsed is being conducted by National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency that investigated the collapse of New York City’s Twin Towers in 2001.