Surfside, Fla. (AP) — Joanna Handler’s miraculous rescue from the deadliest building collapse in American history may seem like an obvious parallel, given her name.
A teenage boy fell from the 10th floor of a beachfront condo tower in Surfside, Florida, a year ago, killing 98 people, including his mother. He landed in a crack trapped inside a pocket among the fallen concrete. A man walking his dog saw Jonah’s hand waving through the rubble and got help.
To his father and others, the rescue brings to mind the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale sent by God to save him from drowning.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Neil Handler said, “Kicked out of the jaws of death.” “I really believe that God puts people in situations that help us build character.”
Now, Handler is sharing her son’s journey to recover physically and mentally as they start a foundation to help families and first responders dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder like Jonah.
Handler said she decided to start a charity in memory of Jonah’s mother, Stacey Fang, after seeing the pain in the eyes of people pulling her son out of the rubble.
Images of a first responder carrying Jonah on his shoulders offered hope to rescuers and the world as the search and rescue mission was extended to 14 days. He was one of only three survivors. Fang died after being taken to the hospital, becoming the first victim to be identified by authorities. The family immediately requested privacy and Handler declined to be interviewed until recently.
Jonah’s father kept the incident a secret after the fall to protect his son, now 16 years old.
The boy spent five days in the hospital, suffering from a compression fracture in his back, and was in a brace for two months. He began therapy to deal with his loss and trauma. When the storm hits, Handler said, he gets terrified.
“Every doctor, every psychiatrist I spoke to said he was no different than a combat veteran who came back from war,” Handler said.
He said that Jonah, a high school baseball player, went back to class and was treated like a “regular kid” to return to a sense of normalcy.
Often fathers try to keep things light. In recent days, they were studying the list of unclaimed objects recovered from the rubble. Handler was looking for jewelry that he knew was important to Fang, such as a ring from his father. Jonah, on the other hand, was looking at the signed baseball.
“He said, ‘I had no idea so many kids in my building liked baseball,'” Handler said. “He goes, ‘Do you think we can have them?
The day before the fall, Jonah and his mother had returned home to see their brother, who was visiting Palm Beach County from New York.
Handler and Fang had separated, but they had a good co-parenting relationship, and he suggested letting Jonah spend the night at his place so she could visit her boyfriend. Handler said that Fang told him they would just stay there because they were tired.
“I think about it a lot,” Handler said.
The call came at 2 pm while he was sleeping. It was Jonah who was asking where he was and whether he had heard of the fall. Handler, who lives in two buildings to the north, fled on foot but was unprepared for the scene of destruction.
“It was surreal. Dust in the air, a pile of rubble, a building torn in half, and I don’t know where his mother is,” he said.
Floor above the floor of the building, a 40-foot-high (12 m) pile of rubble was formed. The passerby who had heard Jonah’s voice climbed through a pile of glass and rebar in his flip-flop and saw the boy waving his hand before leaving to seek help.
The cause of the collapse is under investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in a process that could take years. But the building has a long history of maintenance problems and the quality of its original construction has been questioned.
A Florida judge last month gave preliminary approval for a settlement of more than $1 billion to families who lost loved ones in the fall, for which Handler praised lawyers as he said it would save relatives a court battle. Helps to survive years. A hearing Thursday, the day before the anniversary of the fall, could finalize the agreement.
Finding a new normal for Jonah and his father has come with its own challenges, but Handler said the boy was ready to start a charity in honor of his mother.
The foundation’s opening ceremony, called the Phoenix Life Project, will take place the day after the anniversary of the collapse and will include the families of the victims and first responders digging through the rubble.
“These people saved my child’s life. I am forever indebted to him,” Handler said.
The father said that sometimes he feels powerless and it is difficult to understand what is normal behavior for a 16-year-old boy and how much is affected by what he has gone through.
“Not only did he survive a collapsed building that collapsed around him, he lost his mother, and he felt the survivor’s guilt. So this is a whole mess of stuff he is dealing with,” he said.
Handler said he does not believe his son who survived the catastrophe was an accident.
“I don’t think it was fate. I truly believe she is a miracle. I believe she was chosen for something,” he said.