(WSVN) - For the first time, we’re hearing from the father whose son was saved from the Surfside condo rubble. He’s determined to help both his son and first responders overcome the trauma from that day. Kevin Ozebek has our special report, “A Father’s Mission.”
In one of the darkest days South Florida has ever seen, Jonah Handler gave us all a glimmer of hope.
Nicholas Balboa, witness: “I saw an arm sticking out of the wreckage, and he was screaming, ‘Can you see me?'”
Jonah was found in the debris of the fallen Champlain Towers South and was pulled to safety.
Moments later, the then 15-year-old called his father Neil Handler, who lives a few buildings away.
Neil Handler: “He goes, ‘Where are you? Didn’t you hear what happened?’ I go, ‘Where’s Mommy?’ He goes, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Don’t move. I’ll be right there.'”
While Jonah survived, unfortunately, his mother, Stacey Fang, did not.
Neil Handler: “We were sitting in the hospital, and I had to tell Jonah that his mom didn’t make it, which was probably the hardest conversation I’ve ever had in my life.”
Without his ex-wife, Neil was now parenting alone, trying to comfort his son, who was suddenly startled by loud noises and suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Neil Handler: “When a thunderstorm rolls in, his anxiety goes through the roof. Every doctor I spoke to, every psychiatrist I spoke to compared him to a combat veteran that just came back from war.”
But thanks to several forms of therapy and treatment, Neil says Jonah is beginning to overcome his PTSD.
Neil Handler: “He’s doing better in school. He’s come out of his shell a bit, but it’s going to be a long road no matter how you slice it.”
Seeing his son make progress has inspired Neil to help others. He has created the Phoenix Life Project. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to help victims of trauma.
Neil Handler: “I just want people to heal.”
Neil’s goal this summer is to raise $3 million. He says that money will help Surfside survivors and the hundreds of first responders get the mental health help they still need.
Neil Handler: “They live in a constant fight-or-flight mode. It affects their family life. It affects everything.”
Jonah has already reunited with the first responders who saved him. His dad says, as the Phoenix Life Project grows, he hopes to eventually help rescue workers and trauma victims across the country and around the world.
Neil Handler: “My hope is that we can establish a national network of trauma therapists.”
As for Jonah, he’s now 16.
Miami Marlins announcer: “Let’s hear it for Jonah Handler!”
He’s a big baseball fan and will soon be starting his senior year of high school.
Neil has also made him an honorary board member of the Phoenix Life Project.
Neil Handler: “I want him to learn that no matter how bad something is, we can turn it into something good. When we turn our attention to helping others, we heal ourselves, and that’s the goal.”
Neil will be hosting his first fundraising gala for the Phoenix Life Project later this month.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The Phoenix Life Project
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