Surfside condo collapse

After Surviving Surfside Condo Collapse, Teen Finds New Purpose

Jonah Handler survived the collapse. Now he wants to help others heal.

NBC Universal, Inc.

It was an inspiring and heartbreaking scene: 15-year-old Jonah Handler was rescued from the final resting place of his mother’s 10th floor unit of the Champlain Towers South.

His mother, Stacie Fang, was gravely injured, somewhere nearby. 

And his father, Neil Handler, was asleep in his condo a couple of blocks away.

“That was surreal,” Neil told NBC 6, recalling the moment he learned about the condo collapse. “I’m like what do you mean? I’m sleeping. It's 2 o’clock in the morning…”

He remembered the moment he reunited with his son. 

“They put him (Jonah) in an ambulance and I went with him,” Neil said. 

Stacie had run to Jonah’s room after the pool deck collapsed. Seven minutes after that, their section of the building gave way. She died at an Aventura hospital after being pulled from the wreckage. 

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“My world changed that day,” Neil said.

As, of course, did Jonah’s life. 

“Kids are resilient and I’m blessed that he’s not just here but he’s walking. He has the opportunity to overcome something and do something great with his life,” Neil said. 

But he said it’s difficult sometimes.

“When a thunderstorm would roll in and the sound of the thunder and I’d see the terror in his eyes and not be able to do anything about it, it was the most powerless thing I’ve ever experienced as a parent, and I knew I had to do something,” Neil said.

They found therapies for post-traumatic stress can work for Jonah and thought of others in need.

A moment that came to his mind: when Jonah presented Miami-Dade Fire Rescue members with their medals of valor. 

“And I saw the look in their eyes and as happy as they were to see him, the kind of hope and inspiration he was for them, I also for some reason acutely aware of the pain and suffering that I see these guys going through,” Neil said, adding, “and I told Jonah, I wanted to start this charity, start a charity in mommy’s name and bring this kind of service or any kind of treatment that anybody could want to recover from the emotional trauma and the PTSD of tragic events like this.”

It’s now the Phoenix Life Project, a charity raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help not just those who lose loved ones or who survive disasters, but also those who respond.

“We have to find a way to heal that because it’s going to be with us the rest of our lives,” Neil said. 

Neil, understandably, declined to make Jonah available for an interview. 

He said he doesn’t want to let what happened to Jonah define him. But if the Phoenix Life project rises up as they intend, his life might take on new meaning.

On Saturday night, the group will hold a gala at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort. Tickets and donations are available at https://phoenixlifeproject.org/

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