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Cuomo Prime Time

Desperate Search For Survivors Stretches Into Second Night; Survivors Recount Horror Of Building Collapse & Escape; Lawsuit Filed In Deadly Florida Condo Collapse. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired June 25, 2021 - 21:00   ET



CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: I am Chris Cuomo and welcome to PRIME TIME.

It's good to be with you, brother, as always.

We are live, in Surfside, Florida, tonight, continuing our coverage.

Look, these are people dealing with the agony of the unknown. This community has come together. But there is a lot of hurt here. And it doesn't stop at the site.

Over my shoulder, what's happening there is unlike anything I've ever seen in this country before, except for 9/11. And that was, look, different circumstances precipitated that. The scale was very different.

I just got the privilege of a walkthrough at the site. And I watched every aspect of the operation that is happening. And there are a few things that are important to say, right off the top now, about 48 hours in.

The idea that there are not resources here is absurd. The idea that this is not work, that's moving quickly is demonstrably false. This work by its nature is methodical. There are people who could be alive. And the faster that you move materials, the better a chance that you hurt, or disrupt whatever is underneath it.

They have two active fires going on in that site. The men and women are working on top of one of them, OK? You will see video and pictures of this. And I want to start with this picture because of the significance and the eeriness of this.

The last time I saw an image like that was 9/11, when our first responders were standing on the buildings, what had been the Trade Centers, and they were working through smoke that is so accurate, that is so choking. And they worked tirelessly, because they wanted to find who was there, and give answers to the families.

And it's happening once again, here in Florida right now. Those men and women are working on top of an active burn, OK? And that is dangerous. And they're trying to manage risk.

They are standing on top of 12 layers of building. It's all been so compressed. And this is the most difficult type of a collection of challenges you can have, in search and rescue. There is zero quit, in anyone that I saw on that site. And it's really important that the families and community understand that.

I know these guys from Task Force 2. We've seen their work in Haiti, where they pulled people out, after days. I've seen them work hurricanes. They were at 9/11. They know what they're doing. They're the best of the best, and they are so committed. And they know the task is giant.

A 159 missing, now, they look at it in two ways. You have unaccounted for, which are people who are known to have been in the building, and they can't find versus people who are missing, meaning they don't know where they are. They're two different numbers. They're being combined in that 159.

But all we need to know for right now is the number is big. And there is a need for miracles here. A prayer wall has jumped up, just like after 9/11, missing posters of people, looking for loved ones.

Now, of course, that was terror. And it was of an unimaginable scale. I lived it. I watched those families' pain. I understand it. It is happening on a micro level in this community. And it's every bit as real to the families, who are waiting for an unbelievably large number.

This doesn't happen in America. Buildings just don't collapse under their own weight, inexplicably, in the middle of the night. And that happened here.

And it's raising questions not just about the people, who are desperate for answers for their loved ones in this tower, but all along this block, there are buildings that are of a similar age point, 40-year recertification stage, does this mean anything for them?

So, I wanted to show you what we saw at this site. And as I see what's going on, I'll explain to you what it was.

First, the idea of two active burns, they're using that hose right now, as steady pressure, on a fire that is deep within. Something's burning, could be smoldering, could be active, could be not, it's hard for them to know. They're still working on top of it, all right?

And you have a blessing in Florida because of all the trouble that they have with natural disasters, you have these search and rescue forces, these task forces. They have a number of them. So, they're rotating them in and out.

This picker that you see with the "ALPHA" on it, this has been explained as "Hey, is that the right way to look for bodies?" They're not looking for bodies. The area has been cleared.

This is after that, to move materials out of the way, potential opportunities to find new avenues of ingress. This is not how they're looking for loved ones. It's not accurate. And it's not fair to the efforts, and it's not fair to do to the families. So, I wanted you to see that.

I also want you to see a piece of footage of what the work actually looks like, in real-time, of where they are, how they separate layers, they call it delayering. So, you have all of these parts of the building on top of each other. What was 100-and-plus feet is now somewhere about 40 feet or 50 feet.

And when you move from this to the next piece of video, please, in the control room, you'll see that they have to - we'll get it for you at some point during the show. You have to prop it up. They use blocks to hold it up. They send cameras in, they send dogs in, and they go step- by-step. That is the reality.


This is the other fire. Could it be a mattress? Maybe. They don't know. They can't go in. And it's very dangerous to get around it. They have a team of engineers and a team of experts trying to figure out how they can go in safely.

The men and women want to go in. I watched the conversations. These are the men and women, who run into that scenario that scares us to want to stay away. But it has to be safe, because God forbid we lose more people, trying to find the people, who are in there already.

Now, that is the reality of the state of play, I just walked in. And all I know is what I saw. And what I saw was what I would want to see, if I were waiting for answers about my own loved ones on the inside.

So now let's get the detail on the granular, from the Chief of the City of Miami Fire-Rescue Task Force 2, assisting with the operations, Joe Zahralban.

Chief Z, we've been together before. It's good to see you, brother.


CUOMO: Thank you for taking the time.

And first, does anything I just said not meet with your understanding and expectations of what's happening on-site?

ZAHRALBAN: You actually characterized it perfectly.

CUOMO: So, the idea of why it is so hard, why it has to be methodical, what makes it that way? Help us understand.

ZAHRALBAN: Well, you have to understand that we are in the midst of a rescue mission.

We're operating under Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, who is in command. And their direction to us has been clear. We are in rescue mode, and we have to treat everything we touch as such.

So, you characterized it again, perfectly, when you said that it is methodical, it is technical, it is thoughtful, as we remove each piece of debris, because, if there is the potential to save a life, we have to give that person, every opportunity, to survive.

And we have to make the situation better, not worse. That's why you see such a technical methodical process being undertaken.

CUOMO: Everyone I saw on the site that I spoke to about, "Where are you in your hope window?" everyone answered immediately. "This is hard. They could be in there."

Why that - is that the kind of confidence you have to carry just to do the job? Or is that experience saying the possible is in there?

ZAHRALBAN: It's both. It's both. We carry hope because that's what drives us. But we have experience that tells us it has happened before.

Take Haiti as an example. We were there for the earthquake, five- storey pancake collapse, similar to this type of collapse. We operated for about 72 hours, in a pancake collapse structure. And we were able to successfully remove five people, from the structure, largely unharmed.

Void spaces do exist. So, we have to hold out hope, and do so with an understanding that it is possible.

CUOMO: So, something else that was explained to me on the site that air is getting into the site, through different corridors, when the storm bands, and that that's what you think, reignited this. This smoke is certainly more dense than we've seen since we came today.


CUOMO: And it's much thicker on site coming out of the side of the building, and then a separate part of the pile that has steady pressure on it. How do you deal with a two-front battle against two active burns, and working on top of it?

ZAHRALBAN: It's extremely difficult. And I have to say that Miami-Dade Fire Rescue has done an exceptional job of keeping this fire under control to the point where we could continue to work safely.

Now, you might look at it, and see the fire has not been extinguished. We look at it as they have done an excellent job, allowing us to continue to work, because if they weren't doing such a good job, we would be forced off the pile. And then nobody would have the opportunity for survival.

CUOMO: But this is all about compromise, right? Because adding water to the pile does not help your efforts, because of the density of the mix, and what that does for compression and shifting. Help us understand that.

ZAHRALBAN: They could have 10 trucks here, spraying water on this fire, and we wouldn't be able to work on this pile, because it would be a complete slurry. So, they're using just enough water to keep the fire under control, so

that we can do our job, get in there and work, and try to save as, or access, as many areas as possible, and not hinder our operations.

So, we're undergoing a process right now, where we're going to expose a little bit more, maybe get them a little closer to the seat of the fire, so they could have even more effect. But again, the goal is allowing us to continue to work.

CUOMO: Now, one of the things you figured out was how to search smart, because look, to look at it, you can't really differentiate between all 12 storeys that are in there.

You found another building, same architect, or same layout, and you walked it, to help you understand where to go. And what did that tell you and what were you focusing on?

ZAHRALBAN: Well, when you look at the pile, in the rear of this structure, the pancake collapse, we had to try to determine where the best place for penetration might be.

So yes, we did have diagrams. But in addition to that, there is a building, three buildings down that is virtually identical. So yes, we walked the floor plan. We developed a plan, and we began to penetrate.

And thankfully, the first thing that we saw was a mattress. So, we know we're in the area that we want to be, which is bedrooms, which is what you - where you would expect people to be, at 1:30 in the morning.


CUOMO: 1:30 in the morning. A 159 people, a big number. We've never seen a building collapse like this in this country. Yes, Oklahoma City. Yes. 9/11. Yes, you've had big fires. Those were all things that were precipitated by a mass violent event. This is different.

And you dealt with it in Haiti. But people look at the pile, and they say, "Well, it's not that big." It's volume, it's density--


CUOMO: --that is your concern. How so?

ZAHRALBAN: Well, when you look at it, it's called the pancake collapse, because it looks exactly like that. It looks like a stack of pancakes. And the void spaces are so small, that they're an extreme challenge to get into, and to determine if people have the opportunity to survive.

So, when you look at the volume of material, it takes a long time to penetrate that volume of material. And what we're doing is we're essentially cutting slabs, lifting them out, penetrating, searching, cutting another slab, lifting it out, penetrating.

And we're going to do that at each layer, until we have largely searched many of the void spaces that exist. And even in a pancake collapse, void spaces do exist.

CUOMO: And I was told by people on the site that they don't think it'd be like 9/11, where there was such a pulverizing of pressure that you won't find people. They believe they'll find people. They're hoping that they are alive.

And that's the question is that when you look at the realities here, of what's happening, what gives you hope?

ZAHRALBAN: What gives me hope is first and foremost, the families, the families that are waiting for answers. And that's really what drives us.

And mission after mission, time after time, location after location, we see the grieving - the grievance of the families, the grief on their face. And it's really what drives every one of the men and women out here that are doing this job.

We want to bring - we want to allow them to understand exactly how this happened, why it happened, and ultimately reunite them with their loved one.

CUOMO: Has there been as much signal indication as there was early on? Have you guys been hearing banging, hearing anything?

ZAHRALBAN: No, we haven't been hearing many sounds. A lot of that occurs in the first, you know, the first few hours of the mission.

So Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, as they came in, and worked feverishly to get the most amount of people out, or access the most amount of people, in the shortest amount of time they possibly could. That's typically when you - when you hear that.

We haven't experienced that today. But it doesn't mean that - that we lose hope. It means that we continue to drive forward.

CUOMO: I understand what motivates the head, and keeps the hands going. How about the heart?

How do you deal with the emotional toll of knowing what you're doing on this pile, knowing how singular an event it is, and how important it is, to this community and, really, all eyes of the country?

ZAHRALBAN: It's incredibly difficult for the men and women, who do this work. But again, they find solace in the fact that they know that they are doing it for the families that are waiting for answers, to find out what has happened, to their loved ones. And that's what drives them. And that's what continues to drive them, mission after mission after mission.

CUOMO: Well, all I know is being out here, and seeing the community come, their faith is largely motivated by the commitment that they know is going on, on that site, that you guys are acting, as if you were looking for your own family. And it makes all the difference to them in the community. And I just hope you're safe. As I say every time, I see you on site, there is the best of us, and there are the rest of us, watching you do your work. And thank you for the opportunity to talk to us tonight.

ZAHRALBAN: Thanks, Chris.

CUOMO: And for doing the job for these families.

ZAHRALBAN: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: Appreciate you.

ZAHRALBAN: Thank you.

CUOMO: This is the Chief of Task Force 2, Florida. Very lucky to have multiple task force. They are on that pile, right now, doing the work that hopefully will make the difference to these families.

Now, I want to bring in someone else who knows exactly what this Chief is doing, because he used to work with them, and the understanding of what the challenges are, and how they have to be looked at, within the specific windows, because I know that's the curiosity. "But when? But when? But when?" There's a way to look at it.

And I have somebody who has lived this reality, and we'll get the best perspective we can, in this moment, right after this.









CUOMO: All right, let's start with an unavoidable fact that is a huge problem and frustration in this situation.

Buildings do not just fall down on their own, not in this country, OK? Building standards are real. Inspections are real. Materials are real. We've never seen anything like this.

And yes, you can liken it to other things, bridges. This is a building. It is a different set of - it's a different set of variables, OK? And we don't see it. And that's why the answer is so important.

Now, 9/11 is the last time that we saw a building collapse under its own weight. And of course, it was terrorism. And it was a very different scale. But when you lived it, you see and smell similarities in the dynamics, the challenges, and the humanity that must be noticed right now.

Joe Hernandez has been all over the world, working to save lives, from exactly those types of tragedies. He worked with Task Force 2. He's a Chief. He understands search and rescue as well as anyone, and teaches it now.

Joe, thank you very much.


CUOMO: I've been with the Task Force. We were both at 9/11.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely.

CUOMO: We both saw what was happening in Haiti. Days in, they rescued them.


CUOMO: And the 9/11 thing sparks comparisons not to work on people's hearts but to put context in their heads--

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely.

CUOMO: --about what this is. How so?

HERNANDEZ: Exactly what's going on, you just slowed everybody down.


Everybody's wondering guessing, "What's going on? Why aren't they in a hurry to get people out of there? Why are they taking so long? Why are the fires not out?" And you just took your time to educate the public on exactly what is going on, and what's happening with those rescuers, inside that pile.

It takes time. It's methodical. It moves slow-by-slow. At times, the fire was under control and, at sometimes, it's not.

CUOMO: So, it definitely has picked up. We have video of this two- front fire that they're dealing with, OK? One is it billowing out of the window. And you can see a little bit over our shoulder here. But it's haze, it's nighttime.

And when I was able to walk the site, which again was a great gift for the audience to understand it, in real-time, this is what it looks like from their perspective, OK? That is not a "Put an extinguisher on it. It's just a mattress."


CUOMO: You don't know how deep it is. HERNANDEZ: Correct.

CUOMO: But it's significant. And what does that do, in terms of just choking off opportunity?

HERNANDEZ: We feared that in 9/11. We feared that with the rescuers that were underneath, trying to save the victims that were in the building, the firefighters themselves, that how much - how long could they live in that.

You go back, even to the Pentagon, we know a lot of our brothers that actually had to go in and out of that building, while the fires were still active, actually absorbing a lot of that carbon monoxide.

CUOMO: And we don't know what's burning. Carbon monoxide is always a problem with fire. You don't know what's burning, though.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely.

CUOMO: Household chemicals, what was in vehicles, what's in building equipment.

HERNANDEZ: All of it. All cancer-causing materials, absolutely plastics--

CUOMO: And also, obviously, very noxious to the people, who are inside.

HERNANDEZ: 100 percent.

CUOMO: And then you have another front of a fire on the back side that I was able to take video of, for the audience that they have a steady stream hose on. And then, the men and women are working on top of that fire.


CUOMO: And obviously, commonsense told me you don't want to work on top of a fire, they say "That's the balance."


CUOMO: How so?

HERNANDEZ: They're trying to risk themselves life over limb. It's one of those terms they use. Right now, they're trying to rescue the people that are under there.

They're willing to put themselves in harm's way to the point of going to the edge of the bridge, going to the end of the dock, and saying "I'm here, and I'm going to stay here and help as much as I can, until somebody forces me off, or the consequences of what's going on, force me off."

CUOMO: So, what was explained to me on the site is because there are a lot of people there-- HERNANDEZ: Absolutely.

CUOMO: --there's a tremendous just number of bodies ready to work. And they say "Well you can't have them on the pile. Pile is not stable." So, they showed me the delayering that they're doing.

This is that steady state fire. You see the men and women on top. And on the other side of this - they do it in quadrants. It's A, B, C and D, they did it as a square.

On another side of this quadrant, now there, if you can get in, I shot it wide, just so that we could see those things.


CUOMO: You have the guys on top, who are listening and checking with a probe.


CUOMO: And then in the middle, they have delayered, as you guys call it, and they blocked it up with wooden blocks. And then they send in a sensor and/or camera, and then a dog.


CUOMO: And they said that they've been doing that spot-by-spot. This is the process.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. So, there's just a few of them on top. They're using a Delsar system, which is a listening device. And actually, they can pick up sound, scratches, back-and-forth movement. So, they're trying to pick up that location.

The rescuers were able to pick up that side of the pile, crib it, with what you said, with the wood, been able to secure that area, and then send the canines in.

If a canine gives a hit or a live hit on possibly a person being inside there, they will always confirm it the second time, and that will be putting in a camera - search camera, and being able to communicate with that person and/or visualize that person.

Cameras have a 360 eye, and they have a real far extension, so they're able to see pretty well inside that pile, i.e. in Haiti.

CUOMO: Now Joe is intimate enough with the capabilities of this task force, not just because he worked on it, but he just recently was teaching the guys on the medical suppression, and having those on-site skills. He literally was just working with these guys, who are now putting those skills to work.

Is there a miracle scenario, where you use the saw, you remove a bigger block of this, and have a super event of access, where you can find a lot of people at once? HERNANDEZ: Absolutely, you hit that void pocket, maybe one big long piece of concrete from that piling, an I-beam, a twin-T fell at a certain area, and created what we used to call that pancake, went from a lean-to now or a V.

So, underneath those comp - the pancake could be a couple voids. Even a refrigerator could even hold up a piece of concrete.

CUOMO: And in this last picture, I wanted to show, you lived 9/11. You served there.


CUOMO: You know the level of commitment.


CUOMO: I don't think we've seen it, since then. Of course we have the fire-jumpers and guys going out and dealing with natural disasters all over. You guys are often at them.


CUOMO: But this picture that I'd like to go back to, this is the side of the building. Obviously, there's a lot of that's called "Widowmaker" material, where it could fall on them, they have to remove it.


CUOMO: But if you can go back to that silhouette picture, it hits so many of the people there, who were at 9/11. What does this mean to you to see this effort in this circumstance?

HERNANDEZ: It probably gives them a reflection back to that time, for that period of moment, as the sun was setting. As it did for you, it caught your attention. It sure caught mine, when you showed that to me.


It was the reflection of the leftover of tower one, the skeleton, not a lot left of tower one. We were on the east side of that tower, walking into that pile every day. So, even one of the pictures, I took, has that same reflection. And, a moment in time, it gives you - goes back to that. And I think they might reflect that.

But the pouring out of the people, the pouring out of the responders, the pouring out from everyone, seems to be pretty close to what we saw, back 9/11/2001.

CUOMO: That's what I wanted for people to understand is that--

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely.

CUOMO: --the men and women there, they are all in. They are as engaged and as committed as I've ever seen. And this is hard work. And it's slow work.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely.

CUOMO: But I appreciate your perspective, Chief.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you very much.

CUOMO: Thank you very much.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely.


CUOMO: I appreciate it.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you.

CUOMO: And I just think, look, it's important to remember, this is hard. This community is hurting. They're holding on to each other. They're praying for answers. Literally, I saw members of several different denominations here, in their own prayer groups. They're offering each other shelter.

You can go to, to figure out how to help. There's so many people who have been displaced, not just the 159 or so that we're still searching for, but all the people that were evacuated, all the families.

The people who are lucky enough to get out, you have to talk about them as well. There were a few dozen that managed to escape the building in the immediate aftermath.

We have a couple of the survivors to talk about what it was like, and what it means to them, to be living in this moment of unknown, right now. How did they get out? What do they hope for everybody else?

We'll be right back, from Surfside, Florida.









CUOMO: All right, so we're here in Florida. We're watching the rescue efforts that are ongoing now. We've never seen anything like this. And that happens in a lot of different layers. The survivors are a group of people who have lived through something that is unimaginable.

And I have two people with me who got out. They didn't even know it was their building, when they heard what was going on, until they opened their door, OK? And they got out along with their 22-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, thank God.

And I want you to meet now, Albert and Janette Aguero.

It is very, very good to meet you, like this.



CUOMO: It is very good to have had you made it out.

Let's just do this the way it happened. 1:30 in the morning, what do you hear?

A. AGUERO: We're asleep. And we hear this loud, thunderous sound. Don't know what it is. My initial gut was a loud clap of thunder. The power went out. I thought the building got struck by lightning. That's honestly what happened, I mean, what I thought happened.

She jumps out of bed, checks on the kids, right? Kids are fine. They say "What is going on." But then she realizes that the chandeliers and the lights in the apartment are all swinging back and forth. So, we know it's something more than just a storm. We've lived through Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't that.

Now, we don't know what it is. I see the fire trucks approaching. They were great. They got here immediately. We now don't know what it is. I see a gray cloud outside of the - outside of the apartment building. I think it's smoke because I still think it's lightning.

When I opened to go yell to the fire department, I realize it's not smoke. There's no smell to it. And it's sticking to my fingers, so it's the concrete dust. And now I know that a building fell down. I still don't think it's ours because we're intact.

CUOMO: Their unit, just so you know if we - if we go wide for a second Jerry (ph), is right over here, right?


CUOMO: It's just out of?

A. AGUERO: Has the two white chairs on the balcony.

J. AGUERO: Well.

A. AGUERO: I don't know, second of top floor.

J. AGUERO: Right.

CUOMO: So literally the "T?" A. AGUERO: Yes.

CUOMO: You're on--


CUOMO: --they're on this part of the "T," and the other part is what had collapsed.

Now Janette, when you opened the door and you get out there, when did you realize?

J. AGUERO: Fortunately for me, I wasn't the first one to open the door. They came out first.

And I think since we had no idea what was going on at the moment, and we were still contemplating whether we were leaving, we really at that moment thought, should we go back to bed? And is it just--

A. AGUERO: Are we safer in the apartment?

J. AGUERO: --are we safer in the apartment? And I hear them say "Oh, maybe we should have thought about leaving a lot faster. Maybe we're not so safe."

A. AGUERO: And we got to clear.

J. AGUERO: And they had taken a look to the left. I still hadn't reached. When I get there, and I see what they're looking at, it's the whole building is sheared off. We can literally see, the roof caved in, and just darkness.

CUOMO: How did you get down?

J. AGUERO: Well, we obviously knew anyway, we were going to go down the stairs because the power was out.

CUOMO: Right.

J. AGUERO: So, we're looking for the stairs. We're on vacation. We're not really familiar with the building as is.

So, that's why I think we initially looked left, hoping the exit was there, realized "Oh, OK, we really need to get out." And then we look to our right, the elevator was gone. And the stairs are right next to it.

But then, he opens the door, and we realize that the stairs are also compromised. And the wall was--

A. AGUERO: The wall was just by sitting the stairs.


A. AGUERO: --open your stair (ph) now. J. AGUERO: So, everything that was attached to the side on the elevators is gone. Some floors have the wall. Some floors don't. So now, we're - it's just a mad dash to get down.

CUOMO: How many floors?

J. AGUERO: 11.

A. AGUERO: We live in the 11th floor.

CUOMO: It's a 12-storey building. So, you were on the second to last floor?

A. AGUERO: Yes. Only the penthouse was above.

CUOMO: How long did it take you to get down?

J. AGUERO: Pretty--

A. AGUERO: Pretty quick. I know it was pitch-dark. We were just yelling back to our kids, "Are you all still there?" I had the lead, and she was in the back, and it was "Are you guys still there? Are you - are we all OK?" Keep--

CUOMO: So, what are you thinking as you're coming down?

A. AGUERO: I'm thinking we're racing against the clock because the rest of the building is going to come down.

J. AGUERO: We're racing against the clock.

A. AGUERO: I realized that when I opened the door. And then what I'm thinking is if I start to feel something come down, how do I jump on my daughter to save her? Like that - that's honestly what I was thinking.

I know she's getting banged from people that couldn't open the door--

J. AGUERO: Open the floor--

A. AGUERO: --to the stairwell.

J. AGUERO: --to the stairwell. And I'm hearing--


A. AGUERO: Because it was jammed or whatever. So, she was opening the door for a couple people coming down.

CUOMO: So, there were other people coming down also?


J. AGUERO: Coming down.

A. AGUERO: When we reached about the third floor, we encountered an elderly lady, who needed help. So, my son and I brought her down to the first floor.

And then when we got to the first floor, it was starting to flood. We were up to about our calf with water. It wasn't anything deep. But you definitely could tell that it had collapsed at that point.

And now we had to climb up about three feet of rubble with this elderly lady, plus, my family, and make sure we all got out.

CUOMO: Your kids weren't hurt? They were good, right? I saw them before.


A. AGUERO: Yes. Everybody's - everybody's good. Everybody's healthy, minor scratches, which, unbelievably, after all of this.

CUOMO: When you realized, once you were out, what it was you had escaped, how did you make sense of it?

J. AGUERO: I was just grateful my son was there to hold me up, because the minute I looked behind me, to really get a grasp of what had happened, and what we had just gotten out of, it was pretty - it was surreal. It was - it was scary. It was terrifying.

There was a mix of emotions. I was sad, for - I saw the flattened building. And I was like, "That could have been us." My kids are here. I couldn't make sense of any of it. I felt like "Why? Why? Why did we get out? And how did we get out? What?"

CUOMO: We were talking before, it's not our job to explain what life brings our way. It's just our job to deal with it. And thank God, you got the kids and you got out because you know how many people don't have that story.

J. AGUERO: I know.

CUOMO: In terms of any kind of insight, was there construction going on? Was there anything that you know, you thought about afterwards?

A. AGUERO: Yes. So--

CUOMO: Repairs?

A. AGUERO: So, they had been doing construction. So, we came down for Valentine's Day. It's my birthday, on Valentine's Day. We came down in February. And there had been a lot of drilling and sounds from up from the roof.

J. AGUERO: From above.

A. AGUERO: From above, right?

J. AGUERO: We thought it was the penthouse doing work.

A. AGUERO: Right. Then later on, we found out it was the building. But now, when we came again, it's June, and that work's still going on. So, it's either a very large project, or something's going on. So, we thought that was one.

Talking to some of the other residents, they said that the building - when they built the building next door, it created a lot of like, swaying in our building.

CUOMO: There's a new building adjacent.

J. AGUERO: There's one.

A. AGUERO: They just--

CUOMO: To the building.

A. AGUERO: --went adjacent that that was never there.

CUOMO: Well they're going to have to figure that out.

A. AGUERO: A million things. I heard your segment earlier. And one of the things that, I guess, angers me, or frustrates me, is we shouldn't have to go to bed worried if our building's going to fall, right? That's not what happens in this country. And that scares us.

We live in a high-rise, back in New Jersey. She's afraid. She's afraid right now. She works in the city. She's afraid--

CUOMO: Right.

A. AGUERO: --that those are things that we have to take into account now. How are we going to manage this?

CUOMO: Well look, you got--

A. AGUERO: Absolutely.

CUOMO: --you got context also.

A. AGUERO: Absolutely.

CUOMO: This is the only one that we've ever seen. We have to find out why.

I'm sure there's going to be an urgency on that because there're going to be so many families that don't have your story. And they're going to want to know an answer, for why if they're lucky, they'll be able to bury loved ones, who didn't make it out. And it's taking one day at a time.

And thank God, I got to meet you guys, and your kids are OK.

J. AGUERO: Thank you.

CUOMO: And thank you. I know that this is not a conversation that is easy to have, after what you lived through.

J. AGUERO: It's not.

A. AGUERO: Thank you so much.

CUOMO: But thank God you did, all right? And the best to both of you and your families.

J. AGUERO: Thank you.

CUOMO: You got beautiful kids.

A. AGUERO: Thank you.

J. AGUERO: Thanks.

CUOMO: All right?

A. AGUERO: Thank you so much for being here.

CUOMO: No. Thanks.

A. AGUERO: All of you.

CUOMO: Thank you for being here, because it gives people hope. And I know this has been hard.

J. AGUERO: I hope so. I really do.

CUOMO: And I know it's going to keep hitting you.

A. AGUERO: You bet, it does.

CUOMO: But you got each other, and there is a gift in that now that I'm sure will be valued a little bit differently after this, all right?

A. AGUERO: Absolutely.

J. AGUERO: Absolutely.

CUOMO: All right, let's take a break right now.

A. AGUERO: Thank you.

CUOMO: When we come back - this is the Aguero family. They're one of the few stories we've had that comes out of this on the good side. And we have a long way to go.

We're not going to know the cause soon. Victims, families, they must get answers. This does not happen in America.

So, let's bring in an attorney for the Condo Association. What did they know? 40-year inspection, recertification, what were the issues? What were the concerns? What does the attorney make of the speculation and the questions that are out there? There was a lawsuit filed yesterday.

We'll ask the questions. We'll get the answers, next.









CUOMO: All right, so we know the priorities, search and rescue, then recovery, and of course, the question of responsibility. Why this happened is going to have to be a major concern.

What do we know? This building was not known for being in disrepair. There is no kind of reporting on that that is substantive. It was 40- years-old. It was going through a recertification process. But what does that mean? There were repairs going on, as you just heard the last guest say. They were going on, on the roof. What did that mean?

Let's bring in a lawyer for the Condo Association to discuss the issues here. Her name is Donna DiMaggio Berger.

Counselor, thank you for taking the opportunity.


CUOMO: And I know it is early, and that there are a lot of families, still waiting for answers, about where their loved ones are. You met with the Board today.

BERGER: I did.

CUOMO: Was anything known about what was being done to the building that in any way gave a reasonable concern that this type of event was possible?

BERGER: No, nothing. So, what the Board knew Chris was what was outlined in that certification report. And they were entirely dependent on the items that the engineer would outline in that report.

Typical things that an engineer looks for in a certification report, in Miami-Dade and Broward County, which are the two counties that require this kind of certification, is a review of the roof, the HVAC system, electrical, plumbing, and the building envelope.

But certainly, if - there was nothing hazardous that was outlined in that report, anything that would have proven to be a danger to life. And the engineer outlined what the priorities were. And the priority was the roof replacement, which was underway. CUOMO: Now, I understand the logic that if the Board knew that there was something this serious, why would they have stayed in there? I accept that point.

But when we hear about the work on the roof, and that it was going on for a long time, this talk about spalling, do either of those things resonate, in terms of issues that were going on with the building that were more significant than a 40-year certification?


BERGER: No, absolutely not.

So, a lot of these buildings Chris that are built in the - on the barrier island, in coastal areas, particularly in this age group that have reached, or are near their 40-year birthday, you're going to see spalling because of the location.

You're going to need roof replacement. These are not odd occurrences when it comes to building maintenance. So once again, yes, there was an ongoing roof replacement program. It takes time.

Right now, we also have a contractor crunch in Florida, because we've got a lot of buildings right now that are also rushing to install engineered life safety system and sprinklers. We have a deadline, the end of 2023. So, we do have a contractor crunch of sorts.


BERGER: Going on.

CUOMO: Be that as it may. What were the repairs, then - what were the nature of what was going on in that building before the collapse?

BERGER: So right now, it was roof replacement, which was underway, and the Board had passed a special assessment. And then there were bids. So, in Florida, under Florida law, Boards have to get competitive bids, for certain contracts that are above a certain price.

CUOMO: For the roof?

BERGER: For everything. So, if they're going to do concrete repairs, they need to get - they need to get competitive bids. Those bids were still out and had not yet come back, which was--

CUOMO: So, what about that as a significant issue that there was concrete work that need to be done? Is that around the foundation? Is that something that needs to be looked at?

BERGER: No, it's concrete work, typically Chris, that spalling. We normally see that in patches--

CUOMO: So, spalling is where rebar, which are the bars inside of cement, attach some moisture, and rust, and it creates outward pressure that will crack the outer layers of concrete.

BERGER: Let me give - yes.

CUOMO: Could be - create a structural issue.

BERGER: Well look?

CUOMO: Or not.

BERGER: Yes, let me give you an example of that. Typically, with a - with a building like Champlain Towers South, you've got balconies. And people, over the years, have put things on those balconies.

Whether it's artificial turf, or hard flooring, that flooring tends to trap moisture that deteriorates the concrete surface underneath. Once that surface gets degraded, it can affect the rebar underneath.

I've had some buildings, where the balconies have collapsed--

CUOMO: Right.

BERGER: --either partially, or fully, where we've had to lock people in, where they cannot get out onto the balcony, because it's not safe.

CUOMO: But that's not what happened here.

BERGER: But that doesn't bring a building down.

CUOMO: Understood.

This research that was done that showed in the 90s, a measurement of approximately 2 millimeters a year, and that this was the only one on the east side of the island that they had seen that happened with not on the - on the east side--


CUOMO: --where they had seen that kind of movement, or what they call subsiding, as opposed to sinking, because sinking is going into water, this was going back into the sand base.

Was that something that the Board was aware of? And is it significant to you?

BERGER: Well, I think it's significant the Board wasn't aware of it. And my question, to the professor, or the team that undertook that research, is who did they tell?

I mean, this is the state university. Did they - did they inform the city? Did they inform the county? Did they inform the state? I mean, if that's it - and that is significant, and I think that's something we want to dig into.

CUOMO: But as far as you knew, there was no reason for people not to be living in that building?

BERGER: Not only that, no, there was no reason for that. And Chris, you have to understand that there are Board members, with their family members.

We have a missing vice president who had two of her adult children living in other units, with their families. And I think that's an indicator that this was the type of community people liked to live in. Normally, when you're happy, where you're living, you recommend to family members and friends.

CUOMO: Right.

BERGER: "Hey, this is a great place to live." And we had that. So, we have Board members, who are living here, had their families living here, certainly--

CUOMO: And are now among the missing.

BERGER: And are among the missing.

So, if they knew there was a hazardous issue, they certainly would have taken care of it. Also, this building has passed every inspection, every life safety inspection, to date.

CUOMO: Well look, the big question is why. And obviously, something happened. And as it gets discovered, we'll keep covering it.

Counselor, thank you for taking the opportunity.

BERGER: Thank you for having me.

CUOMO: And I'm sorry, for anyone you know that is unaccounted for.

BERGER: I appreciate that.

CUOMO: I appreciate you taking the time.

BERGER: Thank you so much, Chris.

CUOMO: All right.

Look, we have - the authorities are coming around now. They want people to mask up, because of the acrid nature of this smoke.

The timing of that, look, things happen, when they happen. Again, this is a painful time, and everything is happening at once. And people are waiting for word on loved ones.

We're going to talk to people who have had that experience, and they have multiple family members missing, including a 1-year-old niece. That is part of the reality here, in Surfside, Florida. And we will talk to them, next.









CUOMO: The hardest stories to hear are from families, who are coming up to us here, and reaching out, because they don't know where their loved ones are.

Vishal Patel, and his wife Bhavna, who is four months pregnant, lived in this building, along with their 1-year-old daughter. Vishal's niece, Sarina Patel joins us now.

Sarina, I'm very sorry for you to be in this situation.


CUOMO: But I am grateful to be able to tell the story of who you're waiting on word about. Please tell us what you know when the last time is you contacted family?

PATEL: We haven't received much updates yet. We have family that has flown into Miami. They're at the Family Reunification Center, waiting for some type of news. My uncle Vishal, his mom has participated in giving the DNA samples, as we wait to see people be recovered, and rescued from the rubble.

And the last time I spoke to them was on Sunday, for Father's Day. And I had actually called them to tell them I had just booked a flight to come visit, because they've been asking me to come, see their home, and to meet their daughter. I haven't met her due to the Pandemic.

CUOMO: You know for a fact that they were home at the time that this happened?

PATEL: Yes, they were home. And we have tried calling them countless of times, and there's just been no answers, text messages, nothing.


And someone - we have a very large extended family, and they always stay in touch with someone every day. And they haven't contacted anybody. We've called multiple hospitals within that area, and there's no sight of them anywhere.

CUOMO: And you have not been told by any of the authorities that anyone that has been recovered matches their description, or you haven't gotten any word that they have been found--


CUOMO: --thus far?

PATEL: No, we have not, no.

CUOMO: This had to be such a special time in the life for your family, to have in the new niece. Having a baby in the family often does that. And how is the family coping with not knowing where they are, and the worries about the worst?

PATEL: The family, we go through waves of disbelief and hope. You hear and you see tragic things, but you don't expect it to happen to your own. And especially something like this, it was such a freak thing that happened, and it hasn't been explained yet.

But we are still hopeful. And we're praying for a miracle. We're hoping that there's in some type of a pocket, somewhere within the rubble seeking, just waiting for someone to come find them.

CUOMO: Well, all I can tell you is I just got to walk the site. The men and women who are there are completely committed to searching, as long as they can, and doing everything they can, to find anybody who is in there, hopefully alive. And everybody is praying for miracles. And miracles can happen.


CUOMO: And hopefully they do here. And I'm so sorry for your family to be going through this, Sarina.

PATEL: Thank you.

CUOMO: And I appreciate you talking to us.

PATEL: And on behalf--

CUOMO: And I really do wish you the best.

PATEL: Thank you.

CUOMO: Please?

PATEL: Thank you. Oh, on behalf of my family--

CUOMO: All right. We--

PATEL: --we just wanted to say thank you to - sorry, we just wanted to say thank you to--

CUOMO: Go ahead, please, Sarina.

PATEL: --to the first responders and to the crew that's out there, the search and rescue crew, working tirelessly, to find all the victims. And we just want to say thank you. We really appreciate everything you're doing for us.

CUOMO: They're doing the job. That I can assure you. And I hope you get word that changes how you're feeling right now. And if we learn anything, we'll get right to you.

Sarina, be well, and send our best regards to your family.

We'll be right back.