88-year-old Surfside condo survivor remembers those who helped her to safety

An 88-year-old woman says she was carried to safety as the Surfside Champlain Towers collapsed around her.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – She is 88 years old and has lived in Champlain Towers for 40 years.

Now, Esther Gorfinkel is living with her son and daughter-in-law and thanking the neighbors who helped her out of the building as it collapsed to the ground on Thursday in the wee hours of the morning.

“Who would think that something like this would happen at 1:30 in the morning? In your life? In my old age that I would see something so horrible like this?” Gorfinkel said.

She was in her fifth floor apartment when she said she was in bed and her whole apartment shook. She was wearing just a nightgown when she got up to see what was happening.

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“I put on a house coat,” Gorfinkel said.

Alone and unsure of what happened and wearing only slippers on her feet, she headed down the stairwell, slowly and in shock, she said.

When she reached the garage, help appeared behind her. A group of neighbors from the 11th floor were there and carried her to safety.

“They push me out and we got into water. And then they push me, push me and push me. There was a lot of debris and we saw a hole that you can see outside. They push me. They pick me up,” Gorfinkel said.

She said a man hung her on his back.

“I saw the sky. I knew I will be safe,” Gorfinkel said.

Local 10 News interviewed Albert Aguero last week. He was one of the men who carried the elderly woman out.

“She was obviously shaken. She was like, ‘I’ve lived a good life. I’m good. I was like, ‘No, no, you’re going to make it to your 89th birthday, I promise.’ And we got her out,” Aguero said.

We asked Gorfinkel if she remembered them telling her not to worry and that she would make it to her 89th birthday.

“Yes, because I told him, I just came 88 this month and he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re gonna be 89,’ ” she said.

She told us she remembered everything about the encounter.

Her son, Marcos Garfinkel, has a message for those who helped his mother.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you. You guys are heroes. Angels. They saved my mom’s life,” he said.

At 88, Esther Gorfinkel has to begin her life over. She has no clothes, no identification or medications. She has no bank records.

And cherished memories are gone.

“My wedding pictures.. My mother’s wedding pictures.. My children’s wedding pictures. Pictures in an album of my husband after the war. You know how many albums of pictures I have? Everything is in there. My poor birds are dead. I leave two birds there,” Gorfinkel told us.

She is reflecting on the friends and neighbors she lost.

“My heart is broken. Let me tell you. I have (a) friend on the third floor with her husband. I don’t see them anymore,” she said.

Another couple she knew lived on the fourth floor. “They are gone.”

And an older lady that used to be on the seventh floor.

“She (is) gone, too. And it is killing me,” Gorfinkel said.

So what now? we asked her. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

She didn’t realize the magnitude of the disaster until she saw the news on television.

“Let me tell you something. We turn around. It was dark. The beach has no light. We saw the debris, but didn’t know how high it was.”

The man who helped her, Albert Aguero, is now with family in New Jersey. Gorfinkel briefly spoke to him on the phone early Monday morning and thanked him.

They are expected to meet for a face-to-face reunion filled with plenty of thank yous when Aguero returns.

About the Authors:

Jeff Weinsier joined Local 10 News in September 1994. He is currently an investigative reporter for Local 10. He is also responsible for the very popular Dirty Dining segments.

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local 10.com.