By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON – The Associated Press
SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Jonah Handler’s miraculous rescue from one of the deadliest building collapses in US history seems to have an obvious parallel, given his name.
The teen fell from the 10th floor of the beachfront condo tower that collapsed a year ago in Surfside, Florida, killing 98 people, including his mother. He ended up in a crevice, trapped in a bag amid fallen concrete. A man walking his dog saw Jonah’s hand swing out of the rubble and got help.
For his father and others, the rescue is reminiscent of the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale sent by God to save him from drowning.
“Picked from the jaws of death,” Neil Handler said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I do believe that God puts people in situations that help us build character.”
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Now Handler shares his son’s journey to physical and mental recovery as they begin a foundation to help families and first responders dealing 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 out of the rubble.
Footage of a first responder carrying Jonah on his shoulders offered hope to rescuers and the world as the search and rescue mission lasted 14 days. He was one of only three survivors. Fang died after being taken to a hospital, becoming the first victim identified by authorities. The family immediately asked for privacy, and Handler refused to interview until recently.
Jonah’s father had kept the aftermath of the collapse a secret to protect his son, who is now 16.
The boy spent five days in the hospital with compression fractures in his back, and was in a brace for two months. He began therapy to cope with his loss and trauma. When thunderstorms come, Handler said, he gets scared.
“Every doctor, every psychiatrist I spoke to said he’s no different than a war veteran just coming back from the war,” Handler said.
He said Jonah, a high school baseball player, went back to class and was treated like an “ordinary kid” to get back to normal.
Often the father tries to keep it light. On a recent day, they went through a list of unclaimed items recovered from the rubble. Handler was looking for jewelry he knew was important to Fang, such as a ring her father had passed down. Jonah, on the other hand, looked at the autographed baseballs.
“He said, ‘I didn’t know so many kids in my building liked baseball,'” Handler said. “He says, ‘Do you think we can get them?'”
The day before the collapse, Jonah and his mother had returned home from seeing her brother, who was visiting Palm Beach County from New York.
Handler and Fang were separated but had a good co-parenting relationship, and he suggested that Jonah stay overnight near him so she could visit her boyfriend. Handler said Fang told him they would just sit there because they were tired.
“I think about that a lot,” Handler said.
The call came at 2 am while he was sleeping. It was Jonah who asked where he was and if he had heard of the collapse. Handler, who lives two buildings to the north, hurried on foot but was unprepared for the site of destruction.
“It was surreal. Dust in the air, a pile of rubble, a building torn in half and I have no idea where his mother is,” he said.
The building had pancakes, the floor on the top floor, to form a 12 meter high mess. The passerby who had heard Jonah’s voice climbed through a pile of glass and rebar in his slippers and saw the boy’s hand wave before he left for help.
The cause of the collapse is still 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 problems and questions have been raised about the quality of the original construction.
A Florida judge last month approved a settlement of more than $1 billion to families who lost loved ones in the collapse, for which Handler praised lawyers for helping family members avoid years of lawsuits. A hearing Thursday, the day before the anniversary of the collapse, could finalize the settlement.
Finding a new normal for Jonah and his father comes with challenges, but Handler said the boy was on board with starting the charity in honor of his mother.
The foundation called Phoenix Life Project will hold its inaugural gala the day after the anniversary of the collapse and will include families of victims and first responders who dug through the rubble.
“These guys saved my child’s life. I am forever indebted to them,” Handler said.
The father said he sometimes feels powerless and finds it difficult to distinguish what is typical behavior for a 16-year-old boy and how much is influenced by what he has suffered.
“Not only did he survive a collapsed building that collapsed around him, he lost his mother and he blames the survivor. So it’s a mess that he’s dealing with,” he said.
Handler said he doesn’t believe his son who survived the destruction was an accident.
“I don’t think it was luck. I do believe he is a miracle. I believe he was chosen for something,” he said.
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