The battle of a teenage survivor of a fall from the 10th floor
Jonah Handler’s miraculous rescue from one of the worst building collapses ever recorded in America may have an obvious biblical parallel, given his name.
The teenager fell from a 10th-floor building on the beach that collapsed a year ago in Surfside, Florida, killing 98 people, including his mother. He was trapped in a small space under the rubble. A guy walking his dog saw Jonah’s waving hand stick out and reached for help.
To his father and others, his rescue reminds them of the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah, who was devoured by a whale sent by God to save him from drowning.
“He was pulled from the jaws of death,” Neil Handler said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I really believe that God puts people in certain situations to help us develop our character.”
Handler now shares the story of his son, of his physical and psychological recovery, on the occasion of the creation of a foundation to help with post-traumatic stress suffered by the families of the victims and the personnel who offered first aid, including his son.
Handler says she decided to create the foundation in honor of Jonah’s mother, Stacie Fang, after seeing the pain in the eyes of the people who pulled her son from the rubble.
The image of an individual carrying Jonah on his shoulders gave rescuers and the world hope as the 14-day search and rescue operation for victims unfolded.
Jonah was one of only three survivors of the collapse. Fang died after being taken to a hospital and was the first victim identified by authorities. The family asked that her privacy be respected and declined to give interviews until recently.
Jonah’s father initially made it a point to protect the privacy of his son, who is now 16 years old.
The boy spent five days in hospital with broken backs and wore a bra for two months. He started psychological therapy to overcome the trauma and loss of his mother. Every time there are storms, he gets scared, according to his father.
“Every doctor, every psychiatrist I’ve talked to says it’s the same thing that happens to someone who just got back from the war,” Handler said.
She said her son, who is on his high school baseball team, returned to class and was treated “just like everyone else” to help him get back on track.
The day before the collapse, Jonah and his mother had returned home after meeting her brother, who lives in New York and was visiting Palm Beach County.
Handler and Fang were separated but on good terms and he suggested that Jonah spend the night with him so she could see her new partner. He says that Fang replied that they better stay at her apartment because they were tired.
“I think about that a lot,” says Handler.
He was asleep when he received a phone call at two in the morning. It was from Jonah, who asked if he had heard about the collapse. Handler, who lives two buildings away, ran to the scene. He was not prepared for what he found.
“It was kind of surreal. Dust everywhere, a mountain of rubble, a building split in half, and I have no idea where her mother is,” she expressed.
The building had collapsed, one story on top of the other, creating a 40-foot (12-meter) pile of debris. A man heard Jonah’s voice, climbed onto a pile of glass in his flip-flops, saw his hand, and went for help.
The reasons for the collapse are still being investigated, in a process that can take years. The building, however, had a long history of maintenance problems and there are those who wonder if there weren’t flaws in its construction.
A judge last month approved compensation of more than $1 billion for people who lost loved ones in the collapse. Handler says this saves years in court.
Getting back on track wasn’t easy for Handler and his son, but the father says Jonah supports the creation of a foundation in honor of his mother.
The foundation will be called Phoenix Life Project and its inauguration will be invited by relatives of the victims and the personnel who participated in the rescue tasks.
“You saved my son’s life. I will be forever indebted to them,” Handler said.
He adds that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between what constitutes normal adolescent behavior and what is a manifestation of the trauma experienced.
Her son “survived the collapse, lost his mother, and he has survivor’s guilt,” he said. “It’s all very complicated.”
But he insists that the fact that his son survived is not a matter of luck.
“It was a miracle. I think they chose him for something,” she stated.