SURFSIDE, Fla. — What haunts Moshe Candiotti the most about surviving the emergency evacuation of the Champlain Towers South is not that he lived to tell the story, but the sentimental portrait he was forced to leave behind.
The 67-year-old told NBC News his life has been difficult since escaping the condo building’s collapse in Surfside, Florida. As of Sunday afternoon, nine are dead, 10 are injured and more than 150 people are still unaccounted for in the still unfolding calamity near Miami Beach.
Candiotti was an eyewitness to it all. He said the shaking walls around his bedroom and the commotion in the building early Thursday morning signaled his cue to exit.
Although his apartment was largely undamaged, he now fully appreciates how bad things could’ve been.
“I’m Jewish, every day, I wake up in the morning thanking God for my life,” said Candiotti, who moved into the building about 14 months ago.
While he’s grateful for surviving, he regrets not grabbing an oil painting of his mother — who is now 96-years-old and resides in a nursing home — depicting her in her mid-40s.
He said he painted the portrait himself many decades ago.
“My stuff is there, but I don’t care about furniture, I just care about the picture,” Candiotti said, adding he didn’t have time to grab it while the building was shaking. “I ran.”
Albert Aguero, a New Jersey man in town with his wife and two children for a weekend getaway, was sleeping on the 11th floor of the Champlain Towers South.
They left behind wedding rings, passports and vaccination cards as they escaped.
Aguero was awakened by swaying chandeliers and a power outage and initially thought lightning struck the building. He learned differently after walking to the balcony and seeing a grey cloud covering the building. Then he saw the first responders telling him to evacuate.
That part was easy. Getting out wasn’t.
“I looked to my left and half of the apartment is gone, look forward and the elevator shaft is there and there’s no elevator, it’s just two holes,” Aguero told NBC South Florida. “Panic starts to set in, like we need to really run, because I don’t know if the rest of it is coming down.”
“We got to the stairwell and when we opened the door, that’s when everything really hit, because half the wall to the stairwell was missing, it was kind of open air stairs, so now we’re just racing down as fast as possible,” Aquero said.
Aguero said he, his wife and his two children made it to the third floor when they found a young woman clinging to an elderly woman, and helped them get to the ground level.
“The first floor had probably collapsed like three feet, so now we had to crawl up rubble with this elderly lady and get her up over that,” Aguero told the station.
All six eventually made it out of the building safely.
A few days removed from the collapse, Candiotti is contemplating what comes next. He said he doesn’t want to move in with his adult children in Miami or brother in Fort Lauderdale, believing he’d be a burden on his family.
“I’m going from a hotel, not knowing which direction I’ll go,” Candiotti said.
Candiotti, who has lived in the Miami area for about 40 years, is glad to have made it out alive and doesn’t feel a sense of survivor’s guilt.
Above all, however, he wants to recapture that lasting memory of his mother.
“The things I lost don’t bother me, except the oil painting,” he said. “I hope I’ll be able to get my belongings.”
Aguero wishes to retrieve his possessions, although he understands how dangerous the site remains.
“If I had five minutes I could get everything I need, but there were folks that didn’t get five minutes so I really feel for them. We’re just thankful to be alive.”