Boy who survived Surfside building collapse set up nonprofit with his dad

Phoenix Life Project aims to help survivors of trauma, first responders

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Neil Handler said the phone call came in the middle of the night. On the other end of the line was his 15-year-old son, Jonah, who asked where he was.

“I go, ‘What do you mean? I’m sleeping.’ And he goes: ‘You didn’t hear the building collapse?’”

First responders had just pulled Jonah from the wreckage of the Champlain Towers South, where he lived part-time with his mother, Stacy Fang, in Surfside.

Jonah told his dad he was in the grass across the street from the collapse site after having been rescued and was using a paramedic’s cellphone.

Handler, who lives in the Champlain Towers North, ran as fast as he could to see his son. That’s when he also realized the magnitude of the situation.

“I go right over to the grass and I find him, and I look. And the building’s gone. Like, half the building’s gone,” he said. “My entire world changed at that moment.”

Handler would go on to spend five days in the hospital with Jonah, who suffered 12 broken vertebrae, crushed muscles, bruises, and scrapes.

“He told me he kicked a couple of concrete blocks off of him,” Handler said. “He remembers everything.”

The family would learn days later that Fang did not survive.

“She was an incredible mom. We didn’t always see eye to eye,” Handler said. “Throughout all of it, Jonah was always first and foremost for each of us.”

As Jonah started to heal physically, support flooded in. He met the people who saved him and even threw the first pitch at a Miami Marlins game in October. But Handler said the trauma is still very real. Thunder reminds the now 16-year-old of the collapse. He keeps his condo, even with a view of the collapse site, because it’s a safe and stable space for his son.

“I try to get him in a place to just being a normal kid again,” Handler said.

In collaboration with Jonah, Handler recently founded the Phoenix Life Project, a non-profit that provides a network of counseling, therapy, and holistic treatments. He said those involved in the Surfside response get priority and several of them have already gotten help.

Handler said he’s learned that helping others is a positive way to receive help as well. He also said he realized that Jonah has taught him everything.

“Probably 90% of the lessons I’ve learned in the last 16 years have been from this kid. Without a doubt,” he said. “I didn’t want him to walk around thinking that he’s got to live up to something because he was the only person that survived. I wasn’t going to set him up for allowing that event to define who he is.”

For more information on the Phoenix Life Project, visit this page.

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Graphic: The aftermath of the collapse

About the Author:

Janine Stanwood joined Local 10 News in February 2004 as an assignment editor. She is now a general assignment reporter. Before moving to South Florida from her Washington home, Janine was the senior legislative correspondent for a United States senator on Capitol Hill.