Philippe Naïm was in his Paris apartment when he got a call early June 24 from his wife who was at the couple's beachside condo.
It was the middle of the night in Surfside, Florida, but Margarita Champin had heard a noise that had shaken her – like an explosion.
Naïm said he's not the scared type; he travels for work and knows how to take care of himself. But, when it's someone you love, he said, it's completely different. Trying to help his wife from 4,500 miles away was like a pilot telling you the plane is failing while you're in the sky, he said. "What can you do?"
He stayed on the line as his wife went to check the outside hallway. The power was out, but from what she could see – dust, debris, drywall – she understood this was more than a fire. Naïm and Champin agreed to call every five minutes. He told her to check that her phone was fully charged, knowing this was the only lifeline they had.
"You think you have the solution to everything when you're there, and when you're not you can't do anything," Naïm said.
Naïm scoured the internet for information, but there was no news yet. He enlisted the help of his young nephew in Miami, who found a video feed of the Champlain South Tower taken from a hotel across the street.
He now understood what was happening: Huge sections of the condo had collapsed, unthinkably pancaking to the ground.
In the pitch black, Champin found her way to a neighbors' apartment with whom she waited for evacuation. It took about 25 minutes for firefighters to rescue Champin and her neighbors on the 8th floor. They had to climb over piles of rubble to get to the fire ladder.
Naïm said he only felt relief when his wife reached the street.
His next step was to get home as soon as he could. But, he needed a visa and a COVID-19 test to travel. He was finally able to book a flight for Sunday.
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The couple's primary residence is in Miami, but they keep the condo in Surfside for his job and to enjoy the beach. Naïm said his wife typically only visits on weekends, but since he was in France for the week, she happened to go on the Tuesday before the collapse.
"I could not understand the bad luck," Naïm said. "It was too many things at the same time."
Given all the hurdles to get back to the U.S., Naïm didn't tell Champin he was on his way home, not wanting to get her hopes up. When he arrived at their front door in Miami, Champin thought the doorbell was a 7 p.m. food delivery.
"You're stupid," she joked, as they reunited. She had been running around looking for a $5 tip. "Mother Teresa," Naïm calls his wife.
Twelve people on the couple's floor are still missing, Naïm said. Since the building collapsed a week ago, 18 people have been confirmed dead and 145 remain unaccounted for. Rescue crews say they will continue to search for the missing, but they haven't retrieved anyone alive since last Thursday.
The tragedy has rattled the couple, especially Champin. But, Naïm says, the thought of losing his wife has put into perspective the value of life.
"It's not a catastrophe, it's something worse," Naïm said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida building collapse survivor tells story of rescue and reunion