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Mother, daughter share chilling account of how they survived Surfside condo collapse

A mother and daughter who survived the Florida condo collapse that killed 98 people describe how they survived falling when the floor gave way.
/ Source: TODAY

The last thing Angela Gonzalez remembers is screaming for her daughter to run and grabbing her when the ground gave way in the middle of the night in their ninth-floor apartment at the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida.

Gonzalez, 45, was sent hurtling down four stories, and her daughter Deven, 16, fell down five stories through a maelstrom of concrete and debris on June 24 as the 12-story, 136-unit condo tower partially collapsed.

In a TODAY exclusive Thursday, the family spoke to Kerry Sanders in their first interview since their incredible survival of a collapse that killed 98 residents, including Gonzalez's husband and Deven's father, Edgar Gonzalez.

"It's indescribable," Deven said about the fall. "I can't even describe it to you."

Angela Gonzalez was watching a horror movie in the master bedroom around 1:30 a.m. with her husband and Deven, when she felt a tremor "like an earthquake" and heard a sound she initially thought was thunder.

The partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24 in Surfside, Florida, killed 98 people. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

"I just screamed, 'Run!' And just kept screaming to run," she said. "(Deven) was half asleep so I was dragging her out of the room, as fast as I could, but like she said, we didn’t make it very far.

"We made it maybe a couple steps out of our bedroom, and then the floor just started to cave. It was like two little falls. Falling as the floor caved in, and then I just grabbed her for the remainder of the fall."

"I remember Mom yelling, 'Run!' and dragging me out of bed," Deven said. "I was half asleep. I thought I was dreaming at that point."

Deven fell with the building as it collapsed, and she crushed the femur in her left leg, which left her with a deep and bloody wound. Her father was killed in the collapse, while her mother was knocked unconscious.

Deven tried to calm herself down after becoming hysterical when she finally came to a stop in the rubble.

"Once the situation hit me, my instant reaction was I have to get help," she said. "And I have to lay my leg down somewhere, because holding the leg made me lightheaded because of the blood loss.

"So I had to find a place, objects, because it was an apartment building, everything fell. So that means different home objects, so I found things around me, distinctive objects, and what I found was a pot, flipped it over on the flat side, put it on the ground, and that’s where I laid my leg out."

Deven screamed for her mother, but got no answer.

"For the first 15 minutes I didn't hear my mom, I didn't know where anyone was, and it was me constantly screaming for help," Deven said.

Rescue teams eventually reached Deven and then found her mother, using a door plucked from the debris as a makeshift stretcher to bring Angela Gonzalez to safety.

Deven's older sister, Tayler Scheinhaus, 25, had left the condo hours earlier and rushed home after getting word about the collapse. She spent the night assuming her entire family had been killed.

"They told me that if they were on that side of the building, there wasn't going to be any survivors," Scheinhaus said on TODAY. "So that was a very difficult night."

Scheinhaus was able to eventually find and identify her sister and mother in a local hospital. Angela Gonzalez was in a coma for five days before waking up on her birthday only to find out that her husband had been killed.

"And he was my best friend, he was my — my person," she said. "So every day, you go to sleep, and then you wake up and your whole life is completely different."

"I didn't get to say goodbye," Deven said about her father while crying. "But a lot of people ... have said that saying 'good night' and 'I love you' and 'I'll see you in the morning' was a lot better than a goodbye because it's like, 'I'll see you later,' and I'm glad I had that."

The family lost everything they owned except Edgar Gonzalez's wedding ring, which was recovered from his body.

"We have this thing that every week each of us get it," Deven said about the ring. "I got it for the first week of school. It's going to be Tayler's turn on Monday, and then after Tayler is Mama. We all just wear it."

Deven, who is a standout volleyball player, remains on crutches. Angela Gonzalez is in a wheelchair after suffering a lacerated liver and bladder and a shattered pelvis in the fall. Her doctors have said it may take a year for her to walk again, but she should regain mobility.

The mother and daughter are grateful for the work of first responders who saved their lives. Deven also received an emotional lift when members of the U.S. volleyball team that played in the Tokyo Olympics sent her a video message of prayers and support.

"I did watch the Olympics a little bit, so that's amazing," she said.

The collapse is being investigated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which will issue a report on the cause. Champlain Towers South resident Susana Alvarez told NBC News in June that Surfside town officials told residents in a 2018 meeting "that the building was not in bad shape."

The Gonzalez family, who had lived in the building for 15 years, is hoping to find answers to a night that changed their lives forever.

"I want to know why my husband lost his life," Angela Gonzalez said. "I want to know why they don't have their father, and I know I'm not the only one who lost loved ones. My heart breaks.

"I have my daughters, so I have something to look forward to, but I know there's other mothers there that have lost a husband or a child, and it's just not OK. It's not OK."

CORRECTION (Sept. 3, 2021, 10:25 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Deven's older sister. Her name is spelled Tayler, not Taylor.