(CBS News) – About six months ago, the Nir family moved to Surfside, Florida. They chose to live in Champlain Towers South. The building’s shocking and devastating collapse last month killed at least 95 people inside — but the Nirs managed to get out alive.
Sara and Eyal Nir have six kids and two of them, Gabe and Chani, moved into the condominium building with them. With Eyal traveling for work often, Gabe told CBS News he decided to live with his mom and teen sister to help them out.
The family had their choice of two units, Gabe said. One was a penthouse, the other on the first floor. He said his mom liked the unit on the ground floor better and chose that one — a decision that, six months later, played a role in their survival.
Eyal was out of town that fateful night. In the early morning hours of June 24, Sara, Gabe and Chani were home — but all three had a reason to be awake later than usual.
Sara was at an event, Chani was babysitting and Gabe, a night owl, had gone to the gym. “For some reason, we all were doing things later than usual. And my mom decided to stay later at her event, my sister decided to come back home late,” he said.
Sara picked up Gabe on her way home and they all arrived back at the building just before 1 a.m., he said.
That’s when the family started hearing loud noises. Gabe said it sounded like construction — but in the middle of the night, it was suspect. So Sara went to the front lobby to talk to the security guard.
“As soon as she goes down to the front, I hear this loud rumble. Like, you feel like an earthquake is happening right in front of you,” he said.
Gabe told his sister to leave the apartment with him, and when they got to the lobby, they joined their mom and started to run. As Sara and Chani ran from the building, Gabe called 911.
“I’m on the phone with 911. I see cars going inwards, underneath the building — underneath the building is the car garage. And in the pool area, you just see everything just sunk down below, underneath. And I hear car alarms going off, I see lights flashing everywhere. And I remember telling 911, ‘I can’t explain anything right now, you guys have to come here ASAP,’” he said.
“I remember screaming to my mom and my sister, ‘Run, run, just run for your life,’” Gabe said, adding that he heard screaming from others and it felt like a nightmare.
“I didn’t know where to run. You couldn’t see anything. It was like a sandstorm. Just white, concrete dust,” he said.
The 25-year-old caught up with his mom and sister and they continued to run from the scene. He thought the cause of the collapse was a gas explosion and wanted to get a safe distance away.
The cause of the collapse is still being investigated, but evidence soon emerged of a history of maintenance and structural concerns at the building, which was just beginning a multimillion-dollar repair project. A pool contractor who visited the building just two days before the collapse took photographs showing a wet floor, cracked concrete and severely corroded reinforcing steel in the building’s pool equipment room, CBS News’ David Begnaud reported. It’s not known if those factors played a role in the collapse.
The remaining portion of the structure was demolished on July 4, and search efforts shifted into recovery mode. As of Tuesday, officials said 95 people were confirmed dead and 85 of the victims have been identified.
Gabe said his family knew many people in that community. “It’s very hard for us to even think about these people that are not there with us anymore,” he said. “It’s just sad. I can’t even explain it. It just makes us really grateful, but also sad. You feel sorry for them, and I wish we could’ve done more for them.”
The family is now living in a hotel and dealing with the trauma of that night. “I’m having a hard time [getting] to sleep. My family’s having a hard time,” Gabe said.
“Any time we hear like, ‘boom,’ or just something that’s very unusual, anything that brings those flashbacks, it’s just terrifying and it’s very traumatizing,” he said. “Especially at nighttime. Usually it’s hard for me to sleep because you have the screaming echoing in my mind and it just brings those flashbacks.”
Now they have to rebuild their lives from scratch. “We lost everything, so there’s so many things that your mind goes crazy. It’s like a motor — it just goes fast, fast, fast,” he said, adding that they don’t even know where to start. “We’re just lost. And it’s just overwhelming, really.”
While the family is still dealing with the trauma of that night, Gabe said he thinks fate kept them alive. “There’s got to be a reason we came back later. And I feel like fate really — God really came and saved us,” he said.