'We can't get out': US police calls capture chaos and fear after Florida condo collapse

The collapse of the 13-storey, 135-unit complex, became one of the deadliest structural collapses in United States history. PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (NYTIMES) - The line was shaky. The man on the other end asked the 911 police dispatcher again and again to repeat herself, her words drowned out by the cacophony of chaos that accompanied the collapse of Champlain Towers South. Some people were crying. Others were screaming.

"There are people yelling, saying they're stuck," said the man, who told the dispatcher he was Louis Tinoco, from Unit 505. "They keep yelling."

The call, lasting nearly 13 minutes as a dispatcher assured him she would stay on the line until he was safe, was one of nearly two dozen 911 calls released Wednesday (July 14) that document the immediate aftermath of the collapse.

The snippets of audio - some calls from inside the building, others from anguished relatives and friends - captured the confusion and fear as more than half the building fell to the ground June 24.

The first calls came shortly after 1am, sending a stream of firefighters, police officers and emergency workers to 8777 Collins Avenue. Some of the early callers said they thought that there was a fire, or that the roof had fallen in. The reality set off an agonising effort to try to find survivors.

"You've got to get us out of here!" one woman pleaded to a dispatcher, saying she was on the balcony of her apartment. The exit stairwell was inaccessible.

"A bunch of us are in the garage and we can't get out," another caller said. The garage was filling with water, she said.

"Half of the building is not there any more," said another woman, who called to report that her sister was inside. "They're alive." A woman who lived a block and a half away said she had been jolted by what sounded like an explosion at Champlain Towers South.

"The building is full of tenants," she said. "It went up in smoke." Some calls were hurried, measured in seconds. Others stretched on as dispatchers promised to stay on with those fleeing, listening as they narrated their efforts to escape.

In most of the calls, the dispatchers maintained a steady calm while talking to people who were terrified and bewildered. But one dispatcher, asking whether a bridge had collapsed, could not hide a sense of shock when told by the caller that it was not a bridge, but a building.

"A building," the operator repeated.

The collapse of the 13-storey, 135-unit complex, each floor pancaking on top of the other, became one of the deadliest structural collapses in United States history. At least 97 people were killed and eight others remain unaccounted for almost three weeks later.

In the initial aftermath, some residents manoeuvred a perilous obstacle course of falling debris and blocked passageways as the rest of the building teetered.

Tinoco told the dispatcher he was calling from the second floor. He was with his family and they were trying to find a way out.

"We just heard from people that are downstairs - they got out," he said. "We are going to try the garage now." "I'll stay on the phone with you till I know you're out," the dispatcher replied.

Muffled voices filled the line.

"The entire garage is flooding," Tinoco said.

He returned to the second floor, where he said a number of people had assembled. They were going to try to break through someone's door to get to a balcony.

"There are people in the rubble yelling, by the way," he said.

"We have several, several units that are already on the scene," the dispatcher replied.

A moment later, Tinoco reported back. "OK, we found an exit, I think," he said.

A moment later: "We're outside," he reported. They were making their way along the top of the rubble.

Keep walking, the dispatcher replied.

"Go, go, go!" Tinoco shouted to family members. "We're going to go to the beach." "Just let me know when you're clear from that entire building," the dispatcher said, saying that he and his family needed to move as far away as possible in case the rest of the structure collapsed as well.

The line went quiet for several moments before Tinoco's voice returned. He was lagging behind his family, he said, and had stopped to help a woman who was with him now.

"Don't look for anyone else," the operator told him. "Go stay with your family." But he had reached the beach, he told her. "I'm already safe." Later that morning, rescuers pulled a 15-year-old boy from the rubble. Nearly three weeks of searching have ensued, slowed at times by pelting rain, lightning and a pause to bring down the portion of the building still standing so that it would not tumble onto rescue crews.

After that day, no one else was found alive.

One woman that night told a dispatcher about being awakened by strange noises and watching first the pool area collapse, then the rest of the building. She struggled to process the magnitude of what she had just witnessed.

"The building just went into a sinkhole," she said, fighting tears. "There will be many, many people dead."

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