Teen who survived a 10th-floor fall in a collapsed Surfside condominium seeks to help others with PTSD

SURF SIDE, Florida. John Handler’s miraculous escape from one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history may seem obvious given his name.

A teenager fell from the 10th floor of a beachfront apartment building that collapsed a year ago in Surfside, Florida, killing 98 people, including his mother. He landed in a crevice, stuck in his pocket among the fallen concrete. A man who was walking his dog saw Jonah waving from under the rubble and asked for help.

His father and others are reminded of the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale sent by God to save him from drowning.

“Pulled from the jaws of death,” Neil Handler told the Associated Press. “I sincerely believe that God places people in situations that help us build character.”

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Now Handler talks about his son’s journey to physical and mental recovery as they set up a fund to help families and first responders facing PTSD like Jonah.

Handler said he decided to start a charity work in memory of Jonah’s mother, Stacey Fang, after seeing the pain in the eyes of the people who pulled his son out of the rubble.

Images of the rescuer carrying Jonah on his shoulders gave rescuers and the world hope as the search and rescue mission lasted 14 days. He was one of three survivors. Fang died after being taken to the hospital, becoming the first victim identified by the authorities. The family immediately demanded confidentiality, and Handler refused to be interviewed until recently.

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Jonah’s father covered up the aftermath of the collapse to protect his son, now 16.

The boy spent five days in the hospital with a compression fracture of his back and was in a corset for two months. He entered therapy to deal with his loss and trauma. According to Handler, when a thunderstorm approaches, he gets scared.

“Every doctor, every psychiatrist I’ve talked to has said he’s no different than a combat veteran fresh out of the war,” Handler said.

He said Jonah, a high school baseball player, returned to class and was treated like a “regular kid” to get back to normal.

Often the father tries to alleviate the situation. The other day they were going through a list of unclaimed items recovered from the rubble. Handler was looking for jewelry that he knew was important to Fang, such as a ring passed down by her father. Jonah, on the other hand, looked at signed baseballs.

“He said, ‘I didn’t know so many kids in my house loved baseball,'” Handler said. “He says, ‘Do you think we can get them?’

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The day before the collapse, Jonah and his mother returned home after meeting her brother, who had come to Palm Beach County from New York.

Handler and Fang broke up, but they were on good terms, and he invited Jonah to spend the night at his house nearby so she could visit her boyfriend. Handler said that Fang told him they were going to stay put because they were tired.

“I think about it a lot,” Handler said.

The call was at 2 am when he was sleeping. It was Jonah asking where he had been and if he had heard the collapse. Handler, who lives in two houses to the north, rushed there on foot, but was not ready for the place of destruction.

“It was surreal. Dust in the air, a lot of rubble, a building torn in half, and I have no idea where his mom is,” he said.

In the building, floor after top floor, a pile of rubble 40 feet (12 meters) high was formed. A passer-by who heard Jonah’s voice climbed through the pile of glass and rebar in his slippers and saw the boy waving before leaving for help.

The cause of the collapse is still under investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 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 its original construction.

Last month, a Florida judge gave initial approval to pay more than $1 billion to families who lost loved ones in the collapse, for which Handler praised lawyers because he says it helps relatives 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 is fraught with difficulty, but Handler said the boy was on board and started philanthropic work in his mother’s honor.

The foundation, called the Phoenix Life Project, will hold its first gala the day after the anniversary of the collapse, and will be attended by families of the victims and rescuers who were digging through the rubble.

“These guys saved my child’s life. I am forever indebted to them,” Handler said.

The father said that sometimes he feels powerless and finds it difficult to understand what is typical behavior for a 16-year-old boy and how much he has been affected by what he has endured.

“Not only did he survive the building that collapsed around him, but he also lost his mom and he has survivor guilt. So it’s a whole mess that he’s dealing with,” he said.

Handler said he did not believe his son, who survived the devastation, was an accident.

“I don’t think it was luck. I really think he is a miracle. I believe he was chosen for something,” he said.

© 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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