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A year after condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, survivors focus on healing

"I look in his eyes, and he's paralyzed with fear," said Neil Handler, whose son, Jonah, now 16, was rescued from the rubble.

SURFSIDE, Fla. — One year after a 12-story condominium tower collapsed, killing 98 people, survivors are grappling with the trauma and grief as they try to heal emotionally and physically.

A 15-year-old boy found alive in the rubble is gaining strength from starting a nonprofit group with his father after his mother was killed in the collapse, and a 73-year-old man is returning to his religious roots after he saw divine intervention in the experience.

Jonah Handler, now 16, was one of the few people pulled from the rubble alive. His mother, Stacie Fang, 54, was killed.

Jonah was home with Fang when the South Tower of the Champlain Towers complex fell, and she died shortly after she arrived at the hospital. After Jonah was rescued, he called his father, using an EMT’s phone.

Over One Hundred Missing After Residential Building In Miami Area Partially Collapses
Search and rescue teams work at the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Fla. on June 30, 2021.Michael Reaves / Getty Images file

“He was touched by God,” said Jonah's father, Neil Handler, Fang's ex-husband. “It’s a miracle.”

Now Jonah and Handler live together in the building still standing, the North Tower.

“It’s been really tough," said Handler, who said he wants to make Jonah’s life as normal as possible as his son struggles with the trauma of what happened on June 24, 2021.

“When a thunderstorm rolls in, the terror and the fear that I see in my kid’s eyes, because that sound reminds him of the collapsing of the building, is, as a parent, the most powerless thing I ever experienced in my life," Handler said. "Because I can’t do anything. And I look in his eyes, and he’s paralyzed with fear.”

Jonah, who suffered 12 compression fractures in his spine and other broken bones, is getting stronger every day, his father said. Jonah, an aspiring baseball star, even threw out the first pitch at a Miami Marlins game in October.

A person walks by a screen featuring the names of the victims of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse
A person walks by a screen featuring the names of the victims of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse that surrounds the vacant lot where building once stood in Surfside, Fla. on Wednesday.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Another former resident of the South Tower, Steve Rosenthal, 73, had lived in the building for two decades before first responders rescued him from his seventh-floor balcony hours after the 1:30 a.m. collapse.

Just when he thought he had lost everything, he got a phone call from police saying someone had found a bag with his name on it in the rubble. Inside was his prayer shawl and the tefillin he wore as a boy at his bar mitzvah.

Rosenthal took it as a message from God.

“Finding probably the most religious, two most religious, items in Judaism kind of, like, just turned my life around,” he said recently. “To me, it was my guardian angel, my parents in heaven.”

Rosenthal, the son of Holocaust survivors, said he attends temple every morning. With help from charities and donations, he lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Brickell, about 15 miles from Surfside.

The site itself is surrounded by a chain-link fence covered with a banner bearing the names of the 98 people who perished.

Federal investigators still have not determined what caused the structural failure.

“This particular investigation is one of the most challenging and complex of its types ever undertaken,” said Glenn Bell, the associate lead investigator with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He said his team will soon shift to a more intense phase of the investigation called "invasive and destructive testing," which entails extracting samples of the concrete and reinforcing steel retrieved from the site.

Bell said his team has about two dozen "failure hypotheses," which he said was unusual a year into an investigation. He said his team could know what caused the collapse by September 2024.

The South Tower property is being purchased by Hussain Sajwani, the owner of DAMAC Properties in Dubai, for $120 million, said Michael Fay of Avison Young, the commercial real estate company in Miami that a judge appointed to market the land as part of a class-action lawsuit. Fay said Sajwani was the lone bidder.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman gave final approval Thursday to a $1.02 billion settlement for victims of the collapse. 

The cleared lot of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo
The cleared lot where the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building once stood in Surfside, Fla. on Wednesday. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

For many families, the one-year mark is about healing. The Handlers started a nonprofit group, the Phoenix Life Project, in memory of Fang and other victims to support mental and emotional recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Their goal is to help over 500 people, including first responders and relatives of the 98 people who died.

“In order for Jonah and I to move through this, we need to focus our intention on helping others in the same situation,” Handler said.