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Hurricane Ian’s floodwaters swept away a motel with 8 people trapped inside. Only 7 survived.

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.
The Hideaway Village Motel in Fort Meyers, Fla., was destroyed by Hurricane Ian.
The Hideaway Village motel in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., was destroyed by Hurricane Ian.Google Maps; Obtained by NBC News

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.

Hurricane Ian tore the roof of the Hideaway Village Motel.
Hurricane Ian tore the roof off the Hideaway Village motel.Courtesy Michelle Radabaugh

'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.

Chanel Maston, front, and Nishelle Harris-Miles.
Chanel Maston, front, and Nishelle Harris-Miles.Courtesy Chanel Maston

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.

Michelle Radabaugh and her dog Bubbles.
Michelle Radabaugh and her dog, Bubbles.Courtesy Michelle Radabaugh

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.

Image: Hurricane Ian 2022
The wreckage of the Hideaway Village motel in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. Pedro Portal / Zuma Press

Spending the night on top of wooden rafters in the ceiling

The four women on vacation rapidly grew more panicked as the stormwaters began to rise outside their window. Maston called 911, but nobody could come.

"All hell broke loose," she said.

As the waters violently poured in, they resigned themselves to a mattress, and floated upward.

Next door, the motel employee and his family did the same. But in a life-changing moment, the family's cat, Daniel, sprung out of his carrier and leapt through a broken board directly above their sofa bed.

The employee, who wished to remain anonymous to maintain privacy, had written on a yellow sticky note weeks earlier that the ceiling hole in Room 33 needed to be fixed. He stuck the note on the front desk, where it was forgotten until now.

He quickly helped his wife and son through the broken panel, and just as he entered the rafters himself, he saw Radabaugh float away. Then he heard the women next door screaming for help.

“They didn’t have the hole, so they were being pinned against the ceiling,” he said. 

When the ceiling came down, that’s when he noticed a nail had pierced Nishelle Harris-Miles' neck. He urged the women to get up in the rafters without her. 

“She wasn’t responding. She wasn’t moving,” he said. “I just kind of said, ‘She’s gone. We have to move on.’”

Nishelle Harris-Miles.
Nishelle Harris-Miles.Courtesy Chanel Maston

Up in the rafters, the group settled in for a long night. The employee said he tried to make time pass by talking. But Maston said there was mostly silence, as the women were consumed by thoughts of Harris-Miles.

"We were just worried about her, crying about her," Maston said.

Every now and then, the saturated wood would groan and snap, causing the six people inside to shuffle to a new spot.

"You never knew what part was going to break off," the employee said.

All night, they could hear shrieks from others trapped around them.

Among them was Sheri Fischer, 56, who was stuck inside her attic with her husband, Thomas, who only had a flashlight and a small hammer to carve out an escape path.

Fischer kept little hope for herself. The Wisconsin transplant, who moved to Fort Myers Beach about a year ago, wrote a goodbye text to her family. But that act of defeat lit a fire inside Thomas.

"It broke my husband’s heart," Fischer said. "He got through that roof."

Around 3 a.m., the couple rushed to those trapped in the motel, which had wedged just outside her home. “We heard their screams for help,” Fischer said. “We kept yelling that we know they’re there.”

For the first time, even in the dark, Fischer could see the true nature of the hurricane's destruction. The water was raging. Homes were lying on top of other homes. Boats were flung everywhere.

"It’s like being in a war zone," she said.

The Fischers threw off pieces of the motel roof and created a path, made out of debris, so the people trapped inside could exit safely.

"It must have been terrifying," she said. "They had to stay in there all night."

Fischer went on to check on others nearby, following the calls for help. She found her next-door neighbor dead through his kitchen window.

On a car outside his home, someone had scrawled a message on a piece of cardboard to alert authorities that one person had died.

"We had a sign that said one dead," the motel employee said. "We changed it to two."

Surveying the wreckage, coming to terms with the aftermath

Slabs of turquoise concrete remain where the Hideaway Village motel stood for about 60 years, as a lodging favorite among tourists and locals.

Hurricane Ian wiped out dozens of beachside bistros and tiki bars, resorts and other businesses in Fort Myers Beach.

Destroyed building and debris in Fort Myers Beach after the passage of Hurricane Ian.
Destroyed buildings and debris in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., after Hurricane Ian.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

That has dealt a crippling blow to the economy of southwest Florida, which relies on tourists and part-time residents who typically arrive in late fall and remain through winter — an influx known locally as "season," said Victor Claar, an economist at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business.

This year’s season “is going to be very difficult, because even if snowbirds want to return, unless they own existing properties, it’s going to be hard to find a place to stay because so many places were destroyed,” Claar said.

Making matters more difficult, Ian’s destruction has also exacerbated economic pressures on the local workforce — particularly middle-class people who worked in the service industry.

Nearly 29,000 people work at hotels and restaurants in Lee County, where Fort Myers Beach is and where 60 people died in the storm, officials said.

Before the storm, a real estate boom made it hard for those workers to find affordable housing. The storm wiped away many of the cheap-housing options. That could force workers to relocate to other parts of the country, Claar said.

“Some were at the margins already. This is only going to intensify that pressure,” Claar said.

Radabaugh is among those without a home or a job. She was in the water for more than six hours and had to cling to a balcony, but she emerged from the storm bloodied and bruised, with cracked ribs.

“It seemed like I was the last person on Earth,” she said.

All her possessions had been swept away, except for the sneakers on her feet and Bubbles, her 6-month-old goldendoodle, whom she found standing on a pile of debris, her tail wagging, just before a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter swooped down to rescue them.

Michelle Radabaugh's dog Bubbles.
Michelle Radabaugh found her dog Bubbles standing on a pile of debris.Michelle Radabaugh

"Every last little thing that I owned, gone," said Radabaugh, who is staying with one of her daughters in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Her ribs and lacerations have healed, but Radabaugh still has a persistent cough, two weeks after the storm, from inhaling so much water.

"Physically, I’m alright. Mentally and financially, I’m not," she said.

The other motel employee said he has been relying on his family and friends for support. But he’s grateful his son is not only resilient but alive to celebrate his 11th birthday.

Back in Dayton, Maston's family is preparing to say their final goodbyes to Harris-Miles, whose funeral is set for Saturday.

Lovingly called Nene and known as the life of every party, Harris-Miles was a home health aide and a mother to two boys and two girls.

"Everybody that knew Nene knew she loved to have fun," Maston said. "She loved to cook. She loved to decorate. She made necklaces. She loved her kids."

"We were always together," Maston added.