The evening before the Champlain Towers Southin Surfside, Florida, one of the residents, Manny Lafont, 54, was coaching his 10-year-old son Santi’s baseball team. Hours later, he died in the disaster — but his ex-wife says fate kept their son alive.
After practice, Manny was supposed to drive Santi back to the home of his ex-wife Adriana, with whom he shared custody of their two children. That week, it was Adriana’s turn to have the kids.
But when it started raining, he called her to ask if Santi could sleep over to avoid having to drive in the rain.
“The kids’ back and forth between homes was very open and flexible. It wasn’t unusual for them to switch homes in the middle of our scheduled weeks, especially in situations like these where it made sense,” Adriana Lafont, 42, told CBS News. “But that night for some reason, when Manny asked, a ‘No’ came straight out of my mouth.”
“I just said, ‘No.’ I can’t explain why.”
So Manny drove the boy to Adriana’s. He confirmed with her that she’d be bringing the kids to his apartment early the next morning because he was taking them fishing. Then he kissed Santi good night and headed home. That was the last time Santi saw his dad.
That night, Manny also had his 22-year-old godson over, who was visiting from Texas — but Adriana didn’t know.
“If Manny had simply told me, ‘Look, Andreas is here. I’d like to have them both over so that they can spend some time together,’ I can assure you that my answer would have been different, ” she said. “Every single second and detail of this whole situation led to a perfect miracle: my son being alive today.”
At around 3:30 in the morning, Adriana received a panicked call from Manny’s sister in California. She had seen a news report about a building that collapsed in her brother’s area and begged Adriana to go check on him.
“I got out of the house still in my pj’s, wearing my daughter’s slippers,” she said.
When she got to the site, she was shocked to see that the building where she used to live for 10 years wasn’t there.
“It didn’t exist,” she said. “I started shaking. My whole body was shaking. I started asking myself what was I going to do, what was I going to tell the kids? And what will I tell Andreas’ parents, who are in Texas and have no idea what’s going on.”
In the early morning hours, Adriana drove back home to deliver the news to her children and have what she described as the most difficult conversation she’s ever had.
“What followed was the hardest and most painful experience of my life,” she said. “You just want to go to the site and start removing the rubble with your own bare hands. That’s how you feel,” she said.
Adriana said the anguish they felt as they waited for news was “indescribable.”
“The kids were counting each hour that passed since the collapse with their fingers. ‘Daddy has been missing for a very long time now, where is he? It’s raining, it’s very hot out, how are they going to find him?’ they would say.”
Three days after the collapse, rescue teams pulled Manny’s body from the rubble. His godson, Andreas Giannitsopoulos, was also confirmed dead. When the building collapsed that night, he was sleeping in Santi’s bed.
“The news was heart-wrenching but it brought peace to know that he was no longer suffering. It was another blessing because there were many families who were still waiting,” Adriana said. “It was very difficult. Nothing prepares you for something like this.”
In all,died. As the family grieves, Adriana says she’s still processing how close her son came to being there too.
“Santi’s life depended on one answer coming out of my mouth. The fact that my son is here with me today is absolutely a miracle,” she said.
Manny Lafont’s friends and family describe him as the “life of the party” and a person with “immense charisma.”
He was a devoted father whose life revolved around his two kids, according to his ex-wife. He coached Santi’s baseball team, their 13-year-old daughter Mia’s basketball team, would never miss a parent-teacher meeting and was involved in “every single aspect of their day-to-day lives,” Adriana said.
“That void is what hurts the most today. It’s what makes my children be in so much pain right now. It’s a feeling that, as a mother, despite trying to do everything possible so that they don’t suffer, it’s inevitable —I won’t be able to fill it out.”
Adriana says she is trying to remain strong to help her children through this tragedy.
“There is no therapy, no person, no family member, there are no words, no gestures, no money that can make up for Manny’s absence — ever. My job as a mother now solely consists in getting my children forward, and making sure they’re OK until my very last breath,” she said.
“I don’t have anything else present in my head and in my heart: my children.”