Baseball is a game of inches. As University of Connecticut pitcher Justin Willis discovered, the difference between life and death can be a matter of feet.
Willis, 22, and his family escaped injury early Thursday when the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, collapsed. Willis, whose family was using his grandparents’ condo, was enjoying vacation time after his college baseball season ended earlier this month when the University of Connecticut was eliminated from the NCAA baseball tournament, the Hartford Courant reported.
Willis was watching television with his sister at about 1:15 a.m. EDT in Apartment 1106 of the Champlain Towers South condominium when he felt the building shake, he told the newspaper.
“It felt like a first gust of wind from a storm,” the New Jersey native told the Courant. “Then the second one felt kind of like (Super Storm) Sandy (in 2012), the way I remember it. It kind of seemed normal for the moment. Then the third one felt like a jet took off right on top of our building. I was expecting to see a plane come right over our balcony.”
That noise was not coming from a plane or even a thunderstorm. It was the sound of 55 of the 136 units in the 12-story condominium crashing to the ground. More than 150 people remain missing and there have been 11 confirmed deaths.
Willis’ parents had been asleep, but the loud noise and the swinging chandelier in the condominium awakened them in a hurry, the Connecticut Post reported.
“From where I was sitting on the couch, I could already see a cloud of dust or smoke across the street,” Willis told the newspaper. “You’re probably not supposed to do it, but we went out to the balcony to check out what was going on.”
Willis and his sister said they saw dust and debris billowing up on their condominium’s balcony, so the family grabbed some personal belongings and left the condo.
Willis said that when his family stepped out into the hallway, they saw two large holes where the elevators were supposed to be.
“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 told the Post. “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.’”
The family descended the stairs. On the sixth floor, Willis’ mother, Janette Aguero, opened a door to allow three more people onto the stairs, the Post reported.
On the third floor, they encountered an elderly woman with a cane who was missing a sandal and was praying in Spanish, the Courant reported.
“She was 88 or 89 years old,” Willis told the newspaper. “She was saying, ‘I’ve had (a) good life,’ and this and that, and my father speaks Spanish. He told her, ‘We’ll get you out of here.’”
Willis’ father, Albert Aguero, helped bring the woman to the first floor, where the garage was flooded, the Courant reported. Willis and Aguero lifted her over a wall that collapsed near a pool and made sure she was saved. The family does not know the woman’s name, Willis said.
The family never found out the woman’s name, but have learned that she is safe, Willis said.
At 1:38 a.m. -- Willis told the Courant he knows the time because his father snapped a picture -- the family reached the beach and were safe and unhurt.
“Once we reached the beach, it kind of settled in,” Willis told the newspaper. “Like, ‘Wow, what just happened?’ I didn’t even think about it in the moment. I didn’t look back at the building.”
UConn’s season ended June 6 at the NCAA’s South Bend Regional. The Huskies had won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles for the first time in program history. Willis, a junior, appeared in 16 games as a reliever, going 4-0 with a 2.60 ERA. But he now has a different perspective after Thursday’s tragedy.
“I don’t know if you call it reflecting, but it definitely gives you some new purpose,” Willis told the Post. “It makes you realize some of the things you stress about every day are just not worth it.
“Trying to get back to normal is going to be something that will take some time. We’ve just got to learn to live with it.”
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