The teenager fell from the 10th floor of the beachfront condominium tower that collapsed a year ago in Surfside, Florida, killing 98 people, including his mother. He landed in a crevasse, trapped in a pocket in the middle of the fallen concrete. A man walking his dog saw Jonas’ hand waving from the rubble and got help.
For his father and others, the rescue brings to mind the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale sent by God to save him from drowning.
“Ripped from the jaws of death,” Neil Handler said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I truly believe that God places people in situations that help build our character.”
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Now, Handler shares his son’s journey to physical and mental recovery as they create a foundation to help families and first responders struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, like Jonah.
Handler said he decided to start the charity in memory of Jonah’s mother, Stacie Fang, after seeing the pain in the eyes of the people who pulled his son from the rubble.
Footage of a first responder carrying Jonah on his shoulders gave hope to rescuers and the world as the search and rescue mission dragged on for 14 days. He was one of only three survivors. Fang died after being taken to hospital, becoming the first victim identified by authorities. The family immediately requested confidentiality, and Handler refused interviews until recently.
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Jonah’s father had kept the aftermath of the collapse private to protect his son, who is now 16.
The boy spent five days in hospital suffering from compression fractures in his back and was in splints for two months. He started therapy to deal with his loss and trauma. When thunderstorms come, Handler said, he’s scared.
“Every doctor, every psychiatrist I talked to said he was no different from a veteran who just came back from war,” Handler said.
He said Jonah, a high school baseball player, returned to class and was treated like a “normal kid” to regain a sense of normalcy.
Often the father tries to keep things light. Recently, they were going through a list of unclaimed items salvaged from the rubble. Handler was looking for jewelry he knew was important to Fang, such as a ring passed down from his father. Jonah, on the other hand, was staring at the signed baseballs.
“He said, ‘I had no idea so many kids in my building liked baseball,'” Handler said. “He said, ‘Do you think we can get them?'”
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The day before the collapse, Jonah and his mother had returned home after seeing his brother, who was visiting Palm Beach County from New York.
Handler and Fang had separated but had a good co-parenting relationship, and he suggested letting Jonah spend the night at his nearby house so she could go see her boyfriend. Handler said Fang told him they would stay put because they were tired.
“I think about it a lot,” Handler said.
The call came at 2 a.m., while he was sleeping. It was Jonah, asking where he was and if he heard the collapse. Handler, who lives two buildings north, rushed on foot but was unprepared for the scene of destruction.
“It was surreal. Dust in the air, a pile of debris, a building cut in half, and I have no idea where her mother is,” he said.
The building had collapsed, floor by floor, to form a pile of rubble 40 feet high (12 meters high). The passerby who had heard Jonah’s voice climbed through a pile of glass and rebar in his flip flops and saw the boy’s hand flailing before running off to get help.
The cause of the collapse remains under investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in a process that could take years. But the building has had a long history of maintenance issues and questions have been raised about the quality of its original construction.
A Florida judge gave initial approval last month to a more than $1 billion settlement for families who lost loved ones in the collapse, which Handler praised attorneys for because he said it was helping loved ones to avoid years of legal battles. A hearing on Thursday, the day before the anniversary of the collapse, could finalize the settlement.
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Finding a new normal for Jonah and his father has come with challenges, but Handler said the boy was okay with starting the charity in honor of his mother.
The foundation called the Phoenix Life Project will hold its inaugural gala the day after the anniversary of the collapse and will include the families of the victims and the first responders who dug up the rubble.
“These guys saved my kid’s life. I’m forever indebted to them,” Handler said.
The father said he sometimes feels helpless and finds it difficult to discern what the typical behavior of a 16-year-old boy is and how badly what he has been through is affected.
“Not only did he survive a collapsed building falling around him, but he lost his mother and he has survivor’s guilt. So that’s a whole bunch of stuff he’s dealing with,” he said. .
Handler said he doesn’t believe his son surviving the devastation was an accident.
“I don’t think it was luck. I really believe he’s a miracle. I believe he was chosen for something,” he said.
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