The eight people trapped in the Hideaway Village motel realized that they may die as geysers shot up through the buckling floors and the deadbolts holding their doors shut snapped like toothpicks under Hurricane Ian’s assault.
The turquoise motel, ripped from its foundation amid 150 mph winds, careened west for more than a third of a mile.
In one room, Michelle Radabaugh, the general manager of the Fort Myers Beach motel, kept her two adult daughters on speakerphone, too afraid to say goodbye, even as she watched a large building lift off the ground and barrel toward her from across the street.
“I just didn’t see any possible way I could survive,” Radabaugh said quietly through tears.
In an adjacent room, Chanel Maston and three of her relatives and friends tied themselves together with a sheet and laid on a mattress, as storm-surge waves carried them upward.
They screamed as the surge started to pin them against the ceiling, killing one of them, Maston’s cousin, a mother of four. After the motel crashed and the roof above the women gave way, a motel employee next door pulled them out of the water.
The worker hoisted the three surviving women, his wife, and his 10-year-old son up to the rafters through a broken ceiling panel that he had flagged for repairs weeks ago but had never gotten fixed.
They waited there for 14 hours.
The wrecking of the Hideaway Village motel, pieced together through interviews with survivors, reveals how the storm’s death count could have easily been much higher than 135 people, according to an NBC News tally.
With thousands now displaced and jobless, the tales of survival and loss highlight the destruction the hurricane wreaked on Fort Myers Beach and the far-reaching toll for those who made it out.
‘We were trapped’
Chanel Maston and her loved ones almost didn’t go to Fort Myers Beach after they missed their initial flight out of Dayton, Ohio. But on Sept. 27, the women arrived at the Hideaway Village motel, full of energy, under the impression that the storm’s threats were overstated, Maston said.
Maston said they were going to make the best of their planned 40th birthday celebration for her cousin, Nishelle Harris-Miles.
The group ate at a nearby tiki bar and then came back to their room on the second floor to have a photoshoot in their swimming suits.
“We were acting silly, having fun,” Maston, 48, said.
Later that night, a motel employee arrived with his wife and 10-year-old son. Fearing the forecast may be worse than he thought, he made a last-minute decision to relocate his family from their nearby one-story home, believing they would be safer in the motel, which was on higher ground.
Radabaugh, who lived at the motel, said she did not want to be there. She had her Jeep packed, with plans to evacuate with her two dogs and her cat, but she could not abandon the motel’s new overnight guests.
“I just couldn’t go,” the general manager said.
In their three separate rooms, side by side on the second floor, the eight people hunkered down at the Hideaway Village motel on Sept. 28, as the Category 4 hurricane made landfall nearby in Cayo Costa.
“We were trapped,” Radabaugh said.
The storm came for her first.
As the walls of Radabaugh’s corner room crumbled, the 49-year-old and her pets jumped up on the bed. She put her phone in a sealed plastic bag and turned on location services so she could be tracked. She called her daughters and never hung up.
“I was afraid to get off of the phone,” she said. “I feel deeply guilty about that because I don’t know what they heard.”
They heard the moment the building across the street directly hit the motel, scraping a huge gash against the side of the motel, causing chunks of the wall to collapse on top of Radabaugh and her pets. And then the call went dead.
“It sucked us right out into the ocean,” Radabaugh said. A wave tore one of her dogs out of her arms. She watched his tiny face go underwater.
It would be another 17 hours before the daughters would hear from her again.