Jonah Handler was dozing off to the soft whistle-bloop of tweets and texts and Snapchat DMs, as teenagers do. His iPhone clock showed 1:15 a.m., late for a school night, when the boom — a hard, splitting crackle-pop, like the devil at batting practice — roused his mother, too.
They met on the small balcony off the living room of Unit 1002, scanning northward out of Champlain Towers South. They looked up: Something must’ve fallen off the roof — the condo board was starting from the top with long-overdue repairs — or else something heavy had dropped on the poolside behind them. But to witness the early, early morning of Thursday, June 24, 2021, was to see the uneventful at first. A dog out for a stroll. The brush of a palm tree against the neighboring hotel. Jonah had to crane his neck over the edge to spot the glow of low tide at Surfside Beach.
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Jonah and his mom, Stacie Dawn Fang, returned to his room. There was no need to worry, said Stacie, her long legs hanging off the side of her son’s bed. Jonah crossed his, clutching a Winnie the Pooh doll that he’d kept close since his parents split up when he was two. Jonah and his mom sat there — just sat there, for several minutes on the bed — sharing a bleary almost-calm. They felt no sprinklers. They heard no alarm.
At 1:22 a.m., the building shook. The bedroom swayed toward the miniature basketball hoop on Jonah’s door. And then he heard the thunder.
Jonah can still see the blur if he wants to, but he doesn’t. He was up, and then he was down, into a loud rumbling crunch, into a plume — into a thud. A slab of concrete, some 9,500 pounds of it, had formed a cave, slanted less than six inches over his head. His back swelled, but he was crouched like a baseball catcher in here, and he felt fine. His left arm was free; the other was pinned behind him, interlaced with his mother’s. The crush of rock had locked them together.
“I could see her, over my right arm — arm-in-arm,” Jonah recalls, speaking publicly about the building’s collapse for the first time, during a series of interviews with Rolling Stone. He could hear her, too, buried deep and bleeding — hand-in-hand. Later, he would tell his father that he remembered Stacie crying out, “I don’t wanna die like this” and “I can’t breathe!”
“Then stop talking,” he said back, according to his dad, with an adolescent ugh in a morning of terror.
Courtesy of Nicholas Balboa
He thrusted out his free hand. Kicked away at a cinder block from his downhill stance. It was dark, but he could see past a mattress and an upside-down office chair that they were up high, maybe 40 feet, atop this mountain of furniture and debris. He called out for anyone, anyone else at all. “Help! Please, somebody help!”
Around 1:40 a.m., over by the beach, dust sparkled in a stranger’s flashlight: A man in an Arizona Diamondbacks hat, who’d been walking his miniature pinscher, shouted at Jonah that he could hear him, that he would go find help. “Please don’t leave me,” Jonah said. “Please don’t leave me.” The dog walker shouted up at a police officer on the towering heap. The cop shook his own flashlight down at some of the first of the first responders here on the northern edge of emergency, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue special-ops team known as the Squad. “We got a kid over here!” At approximately 2 a.m., from beneath the rock and between the clang-clangs of an alarm at last, the firefighters heard Jonah ask if they could get him out of there.
They could. But the mountain was unstable; a rescue operator, planting his heavy spreader to pry open the slab, felt like he was changing a tire on quicksand. For leverage, his colleague broke up an end table, only for the concrete to wobble back toward Jonah’s skull. The Squad sifted through boulders, bed frames, any debris to steady their jack. They tried to keep the young man’s mind steady with small talk while they were at it — the Marlins’ fourth loss in a row, Jonah’s offseason pitching regimen — and they were dumbfounded when Stacie, out of sight in the cave beneath, told them that his Sweet 16 was coming up. That he was still a 15-year-old boy.
Between 2:19 and 2:24 a.m., according to dispatch calls and incident logs obtained by Rolling Stone, good news interrupted the chaos of rescue radio: They have a patient that’s gonna be ready to be extricated. They’re pulling people out right now.
Jonah’s right arm had unlocked. But he held on to his mother’s hand as long as he could. Held on tight. “There was a lot of ‘Don’t worry’ — a lot of ‘They’re gonna get you out,’” recalls the rescue leader. “It wasn’t Stacie that was reassuring Jonah. It was Jonah that was reassuring Stacie.” He pulled up Jonah by his armpits, as a great big barrel of a man, a drive operator from Ladder 46, climbed toward them, waving the boy closer. “Listen, you got no shoes on,” he said. “OK if I take you down?” Jonah slumped upon the firetruck driver’s shoulder and, as they began to rise from the rubble, called out: “Bye, mom! I love you, mom!” The driver lowered him onto a backboard stretcher. “You made it, man. You made it. You’re alive.”
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Jonah’s blue eyes twinkled in the truck light. The big man offered him a fist-bump, and the lifesavers sensed — for an instant, at least, as the wreckage revealed itself — a smile. Then they saw the boy’s mother trapped inside. The deep end of the tented slab remained connected by rebar to the rest of their old ceiling; it was unmovable. Stacie asked who’d be taking care of her son. He was in good hands, the Squad assured her.
The first responders carried Jonah headfirst to the bottom of the pancaked pile. They walked the stretcher alongside the pool deck and across Collins Avenue, for the boy to get some rest. An EMT handed him a phone, and he called his dad: “Where are you?”
The internet named him Miracle Boy. But Jonah has never watched the footage of the fireman giving him the fist-bump, even as the videos passed a million views. He’s never met the dog walker who played hero on the nightly news and CNN and MSNBC and Fox, calling Jonah “a guardian angel” in one of the worst structural building failures in American history. A year later, he doesn’t particularly want to.
Ninety-eight people died after the pool deck of Champlain Towers South crashed last June in Surfside, Florida, but only a handful of humans and a cat survived from the upper floors of the 12-story condominium. Jonah, claims the multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed on his and Stacie’s behalf against the building’s condo association, was forced into “pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, mental anguish, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life,” and more. “These losses are either permanent or continuing,” the suit continues, “and Jonah Handler will suffer the losses in the future.”
Jonah was a young man of few words to begin with, and he chooses them wisely in speaking to Rolling Stone: “I don’t know if I wanna be that guy forever,” he says. “I am a normal teenager.”
Indeed, Jonah is a 16-year-old rising senior at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens. He’s been the ace pitcher for the JV baseball team and a straight-A student, and he is a grade-A gamer. Jonah likes pizza and he’s shy about girls, a little. He was scared about a lot of things, for a while there. But he set out to prove — to himself, at least — that there is a post-traumatic order to the universe. Surviving was the easy part. Continuing, though … maybe that was the reason a miracle happened to Jonah Handler.
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The pain isn’t anything like last summer, when the 12 compression fractures in his upper spine made it difficult to lie horizontal, and the back harness meant playing ball was impossible. The flashbacks here in bed at his dad’s place, about that night in the old bed at his mom’s house, have stopped. “Now,” Jonah says, “I’m just tired.” He doesn’t like to open the curtains in his room, and he doesn’t particularly like to get out of bed. They start baseball season early in Florida, at 10 a.m. on Feb. 26. But he’s feeling too sick this morning, a little too sore. It’s Opening Day 2022, and mighty Jonah has slept in.
He smells his dad’s chicken-fried rice and yawns into the hallway. He glances at the grid of mounted square photos in the living room — the one of Stacie giving Jonah a piggyback, with their matching model cheeks and pencil-peaked brows resting face-to-face, makes him smile again. Jonah tries to remember the good times these days. “I don’t want to be stuck in my trauma,” he says. That doesn’t mean he knows how to move forward, but his dad helps. Dad helps a lot.
Behind the kitchen counter, Neil Handler is shirtless, holding court with a saucepan and bemoaning that his son’s generation doesn’t like to read.
“I used to have, like, a bunch of books,” Jonah says. “But … I don’t have ’em anymore — I mostly go on YouTube, on my phone.”
Neil passes his son a steaming bowl and gives him sarcastic shit over his grades. “You have two B’s, and you better get that fucker up, or you and I are gonna have problems.”
“I have one,” Jonah says. “My dumb teacher didn’t switch my grade.”
“Well, maybe he gave your grade to somebody else.”
Neil has enforced high standards and hardcore routines since what he calls “the Event.” A whiteboard calendar in Jonah’s room breaks up his schedule by the hour: One day, it’ll be a core-strength workout before class — Jonah has taken to structural engineering, discovering joy in the advanced machinery of Lego-style robots — followed by baseball practice, more practice with his private hitting instructor an hour north, then back to the city for therapy, and lots of it. “Starting Monday, 2:30 to 3:30, ACT prep, study group,” Neil reminds him, stepping out for a smoke.
Dad chauffeurs Jonah all winter long, not simply because Neil’s a car guy who sells Lamborghinis and Ferraris to NFL stars and influencers, but because Jonah has shied away from the rumble of actual machinery of late — won’t get behind the wheel, won’t go near those bulldozers by the beach. Right before Covid hit, Neil had signed on to a lease on a condo closer to Jonah, so that his boy could walk from Stacie’s on Mondays and Thursdays and every other weekend. “From right there,” he says, peering through rimless glasses. He stands at the corner of his wraparound balcony and points two buildings south: Jonah and Neil still live 425 feet from the pile, in a sister building with nearly identical design.
The street side of the tower was still standing when he’d woken up to Jonah’s call eight months earlier and ran to the other side of Collins Avenue. Shortly after 3 a.m., they’d jumped in one ambulance and learned that a critical patient was in the other. Jonah — who had a deep cut on the back of his neck to go with scrapes and bruises on his left arm no worse than after stealing second base — asked if they’d found his mom. Officials at the hospital hadn’t formally identified her yet, but Neil remembers a nurse miming that things weren’t looking any better: The first of Surfside’s 98 confirmed dead would be Stacie.
The hospital-assigned psychologist called him back over a cigarette, Neil says, minutes after he’d found out for sure the next day, and suggested that he tell his boy the bad news, just the two of them.
Neil cleared the crowded room. He pulled a chair up to the bed: “Mommy didn’t make it.”
Courtesy of the Handler family
Jonah wept, for one minute, into the pillow. “Everything happens for a reason,” he told his father. Neil hasn’t seen him cry since.
The 58-year-old single dad doesn’t know what a normal teenager is, exactly, but he knew, after the Event, that Jonah was not it. “He was still triggered, bad,” Neil says. Even a passing shower while waiting for brunch amid the high-rises of Brickell reminded Jonah of the thundering blur. He checked the forecast as often as ESPN. “When a thunderstorm would roll in, and I’d see that terror — like a catatonic-type stare — it’s the scariest thing for a parent to look into your kid’s eyes and see that. It’s literally a deer in headlights.” And then there was the night when Neil the bachelor went out and Jonah, home alone, felt a thump from the ceiling. He hustled out the door, downstairs, past the security station, the valet stand, and straight across traffic to the other side of Collins Avenue. “Dad,” he said into his phone, “you gotta come home. You gotta come home.” The neighbors, Neil says, were adjusting their furniture.
Father and son have become inseparable, even without a chance of rain. Neil built them a causeway from grief the day after Stacie’s funeral, and he test-drove his own model of parenting in another direction from the familiar aftermath of American mass casualty. He skips the ribbon-cuttings and the policy proposals. His emerging philanthropic work goes relatively unrecognized in the Surfside family group chat. And he’s wanted little to do with the infighting over money: By late February, negotiations over a massive class-action settlement have divided owners of the 136 condo units and families of the other 97 people who did not survive. “It’s sad to me to see it, because there’s life after tragedy,” Neil says.
He believes in living on, and so he has kept his lease on Collins Avenue, to keep Jonah going and to keep them close to Stacie’s memory. “If he doesn’t walk through that fear, it’ll be with him forever. If I moved him into a house a week or two weeks after this happened, this kid would never walk into a building again.” Yet by Opening Day, his son hasn’t so much as ventured two blocks down the boardwalk, to visit the chain-linked pit that remains of his former home.
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They drive to a co-working space in Wynwood, where Jonah’s new “life coach” projects a map of his brain. The Handlers invite Rolling Stone to session eight at Pathwaves, a so-called neurofeedback platform that requires a technician to glue electrodes in 23 places on Jonah’s mop of brown hair every week or so, measuring the volume of his trauma while he listens to acoustic guitar in a La-Z-Boy. In the weeks following the Event, Neil considered microdosing his teenager with ketamine, or hiring the PTSD influencer who’d hocked him a spiritual awakening, whatever it took for Jonah to compartmentalize catastrophe without having to replay those seven minutes in the devil’s batting cage. Half a year of talk therapy with the hospital’s psychologist had taught Jonah exercises to feel his feet on the floor. To combat visions of the fastball he took to the face on the first day of Little League. To live in the now. But he had told Neil that none of that was particularly working.
Jonah bought into Pathwaves after its founder, Geoff Cole, persuaded him that he could win the lottery 10 times before he’d fall 10 stories from another building — and that Jonah could train his own nervous system to stop thinking the nightmare might happen again tomorrow. The blur of the fall wouldn’t go away. “I don’t want it there,” Jonah told him.
At first, Cole says, “Jonah’s brain map looked like a veteran coming back from war,” with an unconscious voltage two or three times more overactive than the typical bullied teenager. The initial Pathwaves readout showed a 41 percent rank on its “interference scale” due to latent fear. At their session, Cole attributes the stress to “a very available, cheap coping mechanism” consuming Jonah’s cognitive capacity: “You use your phone like a pacifier.” Earbud in and best-friend Snapchat group chat activated, Jonah again says that he hasn’t noticed improvements. After this week, however, that cognitive interference will dip, to 27 percent. Neil has become so impressed with Jonah’s progress that he calls up the first responders from the pile and asks them to give the Mind Massage machine a whirl themselves sometime, free of charge. Stacie’s brother had suggested a 5K for charity; maybe, Neil thought, this could be the charity.
Back home, Jonah monitors his weather app. No storms tonight, so he allows Neil to head out for dinner again, and locks in at the gaming desk — Supreme sticker on the PS5, first-responder patches pinned to the wall above. His noise-canceling headphones, though, are quickly overcome by an alarm. It is not the clang-clang-chirp of that dark night waiting on the mountain, but it is loud, and it is close, and it continues for a full minute. The siren stops; he returns to play. Then it goes off again. Jonah sits through the first minute, and the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, until it stops again. He calls Neil, and, in no particular rush, takes the elevator downstairs to ask the security guard working the lobby shift if there’s a fire in the building. Probably just the neighbors’ smoke detector, she tells him. And so, Jonah says, “I didn’t really worry again.”
The first time Jonah visited the ballpark after the Event was last October, when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Miami Marlins game. Neil didn’t permit the announcer to identify him as Miracle Boy then, because the co-option is real: “Donald Trump was talking about me,” Jonah tells his dad on their drive to the stadium this Saturday morning in mid-March. The ex-president said on a podcast that the media had focused on two people injured after a tragedy on the beach in Florida caused by “bad structural engineering or rust or something,” but that there were many more suffering — and even then it was nothing compared to the destruction of “much bigger buildings” in Ukraine. Today, while Trump holds a rally 35 miles away, Neil has asked Jonah to step out in public at LoanDepot Park, but not for a game: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s annual Medal Day ceremony is a family affair.
Taking his seat behind home plate, Jonah shakes his legs. At the first mention of the word “collapse,” he twitches his left hand and futzes with his wristbands, bites his nails and the backs of his knuckles, too. Neil attempts to start the wave, until the tribute to the lost begins on the Jumbotron; Jonah confirms an online-gaming date on Snapchat, then pockets his phone and looks for dad’s hand to hold. “I love you,” Jonah says.
As if from the ashes, a former classmate sidles into their aisle, asks how Jonah is doing, and answers her own question before he can.
“I’m getting better,” says the girl, 17-year-old Deven Gonzalez. “I lived one or two floors down from you. My dad didn’t make it.”
“I’m so sorry,” Neil tells her.
She’d been watching a horror movie in bed with her parents when her mom heard the boom and screamed at Deven and her dad, Edgar, to run. Deven and her mother, Angela, fell from the ninth to the eighth story, then to the fifth — they and one of their two cats, Binx, are considered some of the only survivors other than Jonah from above the fifth floor of their building. Deven and her sister, who’d been out with friends, are the only other survivors who lost a parent, here in attendance at Medal Day. In the aisle, Deven explains that her promising volleyball career is still on hiatus; the doctors say her femur, which she’d propped upon a stray pot in the wreckage 10 months ago, is still too busted for jumping.
“I’m so sorry about your mom,” she says to Jonah.
A woman interrupts to shake his hand: “I’m here for you in spirit.” Only when they take the infield stage together a half-hour later, to place the medals on the Squad, does Jonah realize this lady is the mayor.
“I’m getting better,” another teenage survivor of the collapse tells Jonah. “I lived one or two floors down from you. My dad didn’t make it.”
On the top of the dugout, Neil considers his own next step. A firefighter confides in him that some of his colleagues haven’t returned to work. That he’d been picking up the phone at 3 a.m. to the sound of grown men drunk and crying. As the firefighter tells Rolling Stone about his own mental-health struggles: “It’s pretty bad when your daughter says, ‘The day of the collapse is the day my dad died.’” In the on-deck circle, Neil finds Deven’s mom. She’s out of the wheelchair, and anything feels better than when she woke up from a coma on her birthday, five days after the collapse, only to learn that her husband was dead. Neil invites her to a fundraising gala for his charity, the Phoenix Life Project.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” he says, but Neil envisions prefabbed shipping containers — each housing a Pathwaves La-Z-Boy, an acupuncture table, a trauma therapist — arriving for first responders at the sites of superstorms and wildfires, earthquakes and tornadoes. Supermarkets. Elementary schools. Neil remembers trying and failing to open a celebrity rehab facility in Anguila three decades earlier, but here was the car salesman becoming an overnight philanthropist for Stacie. For Jonah.
“It’s about celebrating her life,” Neil says back in the SUV, “not being stuck in mourning the death or staying stuck in that morbid self-reflection of, ‘Oh, what could we have done different? Or why didn’t I make her leave Jonah with me that night?’ You can always think about what could have happened, but the reality is it’s one of the most unfortunate things that could happen in life, but that’s … part of life.”
Shamoka Furman was working the overnight lobby shift at Champlain Towers South when she heard the boom, at 1:15 a.m. “I thought it was an elevator,” she would soon tell the police, “because no alarms went off.” A fire alarm was triggered, but nobody seems to remember hearing it, save perhaps a child on the third floor. At 1:16, Furman called 911 to report an “explosion,” then called back the police at 1:17, referring to the unfurling disaster as “an earthquake.” She didn’t just sit there: The security guard frantically called residents’ numbers off a list, one at a time, for several minutes. “I can’t knock on everybody’s doors,” she would tell the cops outside, “so everybody I was calling: ‘Get out, get out, get out!’ The next you thing know …”
It was 1:22. Thunder.
“She didn’t know what else to fuckin’ do,” says Judd Rosen, a 46-year-old guru of liability law who has been as determined as he is kind, in representing Jonah and his dad over the past year. “He was sitting there for seven minutes on that bed, wondering.”
Pricing out human life and loss is a grim affair, and justice for the victims of the collapse was always going to be an exercise in ghost chasing. But by the time spring 2022 rolls around, it seems like almost everyone tasked with accounting for Surfside — foulmouthed lawyers, broke mourners, former homeowners, security contractors — is pissed off, because, as the judge in the historic compensation settlement says at a hearing in late March, “Everyone in this case is a victim.” Deborah Soriano had escaped with her kids after hosting a party at the unit she owned on the 11th floor, and now she pleaded with the judge. “I don’t need my watch, my jewelry, or my possessions — I really just want my life back,” Soriano said at the hearing. “I’m officially homeless, and I have no idea how I will ever purchase a home again. When did the victims turn into criminals? What was the turning point of this horrible tragedy?” At another mediation hearing, an attorney representing the condo-unit owners — an old friend of Stacie’s and a childhood basketball coach for Jonah — asks Neil how Jonah is doing; Neil asks him how evil people sleep at night, and walks away.
The consortium of South Florida lawyers who’d once lined up for the insurance claim of the millennium had to remind every manner of victim that there would be only so much money to go around: The Champlain Towers South condo association could cough up, at best, an estimated $150 million between a potential sale of the land and its property-loss insurance for, say, a hurricane, in addition to its mere $18 million in liability insurance. The judge wanted to separate the owners from negotiations and appointed Jonah’s lawyer to coordinate on behalf of the building’s renters and guests.
Rosen proceeded to take a massive risk, helping to strike a deal with owners and heirs of the condo units to guarantee them $83 million — half of the existing pot, max — and release them from liability. Lawyers for the condo board said at the time that the cause of the collapse remained unclear but that they were happy to resolve the owners’ side of the settlement, “and sincerely hope the insurance settlement will bring some relief to those impacted by this terrible tragedy.” No matter how big or small the eventual class-action settlement became, the rest of the available pot would compensate families who’d lost their loved ones, starting at about $80,000 per soul — but perhaps nothing more.
“Leftovers,” says Rosen. And, as of March, there were few obvious potential defendants on the hook to fund a bigger pot, beyond maybe the developers for the building next door, who did end up settling and continue to deny wrongdoing and liability. “Everybody was concerned that there was going to be nothing — but I was going after the big bucks.”
His firm, digging deep, had learned of another alarm. Nobody seems to have heard this second alarm during Jonah’s seven minutes of bedroom purgatory either, because it was apparently never triggered. The alarm was next to the security guard. “She’s literally calling 9-1-1 here,” says Rosen, stretching with a bagel in one direction and his fork in another, “and all she has to do is turn around and press this button here.” The “all-call” alarm was made to activate a loudspeaker, which, from the security station, could have been used for a voice alert into each of the 136 units of the building — and each of the bedrooms — at once.
On March 22, Rosen deposes a representative from the overnight lobby guard’s employer, Securitas, the second-biggest security company on Earth. The Swedish behemoth denies any wrongdoing or responsibility for the collapse, and says that on-suite guards like Shamoka Furman, who was a contractor with five months on the job, were focused on visitors coming and going. Securitas also notes that it neither installed nor maintained the alarm system at Champlain Towers South. So another attorney for the plaintiffs deposes a representative for the company that did install it, who tells him under oath that their alarm’s switch would have been listed in entry logs. According to multiple people familiar with the mediation process, the records do not show an “all-call” button being pressed between the trigger of the initial fire alarm that almost nobody seems to have heard — except maybe that child — before the building collapsed. In response to a detailed list of questions from Rolling Stone, a spokeswoman for Securitas provided a statement reading, in part, that the company’s “participation in the settlement does not reflect responsibility for the collapse of the building or the tragic loss of life. The legal and insurance claims environment surrounding this matter compelled Securitas USA’s insurers’ participation in the settlement.”
Behind the closed doors of Rosen’s office isn’t some toll-free car-accident factory with a South Beach view, although they have that, too. His firm figures out the total limits of Securitas insurance coverage and prepares, over the course of the spring, to pursue a case that he says could sprawl into dozens of breakaway wrongful-death trials over the better part of a decade. For video testimony that could be admissible as evidence, Rosen even gets the tight-lipped Furman to share some critical information.
“I’m sorry, but I wasn’t trained,” the security guard admitted to Jonah’s lawyer, in an interview recorded on May 5 and reviewed by Rolling Stone. She sniffled, then proceeded to weep: “And if I woulda known there was a button, I would have touched it at the first boom I heard. Not the second, not the third, not the fourth, not the fifth. The first boom. I would have everybody say, ‘Evacuate!’ They would have known, ‘OK, I hear a siren. It’s an emergency.’ They would’ve left their apartments and evacuated.”
“And if I woulda known there was a button, I would have touched it at the first boom I heard,” said the security guard. “I would have everybody say, ‘Evacuate!’”
The survivors who escaped and the owners who lost their furniture were already taken care of, by the controversial $83 million deal finalized in March after months of asking for compensation to get a part of their lives back. But the departed cannot speak on behalf of their families; you can always think about what could have happened, as Neil likes to say, except it was difficult to prove that 98 dead people would have, indeed, heard Furman call to evacuate and then sprinted out the door, down the stairs, and across Collins Avenue. That the women of the Gonzalez family had run and lived, and that Edgar Gonzalez had died, wouldn’t much help the case. Rosen’s firm watched as Securitas lined up its lawyers and layers of insurance reps. “We had ’em dead to rights,” he says. Because they have Jonah.
He was just sitting there in his bedroom, with Stacie and Winnie the Pooh, when the collapse transformed him into both a motherless child and a trauma survivor. That Jonah didn’t know what else to do — that he heard only the quiet comfort of his mother’s voice, and then the thunder — was exactly the problem for an innocent bystander to destruction. His mere existence and persistence were evidence enough. “He proved that those seven minutes really would have saved lives,” says Rosen. “He was the key witness.”
There were mornings earlier this year when Neil would have to stomp into his son’s room twice to wake him up and a third time to drag him out of bed. And still his boy clutched the pillow. On the first Saturday in May, however, the map of Jonah’s mind reveals a full 50 percent decrease in the neurological volume associated with sleeping — and a one-third volume drop overall — since the Pathwaves sessions began. “I’m doing better” he says, and he’s putting his phone down. Jonah is about to finish the school year with an A in engineering, although he’d still give himself a C for his own therapeutic efforts. “Because it’s still hard,” he admits. “Like, it depends where I am or what’s happening: I’m not reacting to noises as much. Like building noises, I can brush it off — well, not thunder.”
Swamp season has returned, and with it those Florida afternoons that can sashay into a sunshower. Jonah considers it progress that he can wait out the rumble these days, turning up his headphones at the gaming station without having to bolt downstairs. He was home alone the other day when Neil invited Jonah to meet him out in the neighborhood for dinner, and Jonah drove solo in his brand-new Mustang; the coal-fired pizza was fantastic, but the late rain turned him catatonic again.
He wasn’t. Jonah refused to go home — “it’s a building” — and drove off to a family friend’s low-slung house over the causeway.
So Neil doesn’t leave the house for more than two hours at a time anymore, and he knocks on the bedroom door a little later this Sunday morning. A little lighter. There is a 30 percent chance of isolated showers in the forecast — and it is Mother’s Day.
He is. Jonah just wants to sleep in, is all.
“Jonah was one of the most important pieces of the puzzle,” says a lawyer working on his behalf
“Typical 16-year-old,” Neil says, and heads downstairs for a long sit on the beach. He thinks about the call to his ex-wife the morning before the Event, to ask what time she and Jonah might return from visiting her brother up in Jupiter over Father’s Day. Jonah had wanted to stay one more night and play at Uncle Mitch’s pool, but his mom wanted him back in school, and his dad was encouraging him to take a summer job selling popsicles between baseball practices. Really, though, Neil had called to tell Stacie that he’d come to a realization about normal teenagers: At 15, Neil had been out clubbing, or stealing his parents’ car without a license. The worst thing his son ever did was play too much PlayStation and stay up watching home runs on YouTube. “I’ve been trying to tell you that,” he remembers Stacie saying on the other end of the line. “You gotta let up. You gotta leave him alone. Let him be a kid.”
Jonah and Neil feel Stacie’s presence often — as a pelican who wouldn’t detach from their fishing boat, or a pigeon who moved in on their balcony. Jonah even Googled the name of the bird’s family: Mourning Dove. Just last night, a friend told Neil she’d had a dream of running into Stacie — that Stacie was alive, looking for her son. Here on Surfside Beach, on the first Mother’s Day without her, Neil turns his head toward the chain-linked pit on 88th Street. He starts checking out a woman walking across the sand: the same long legs, same tan hair, a baseball cap like Stacie loved to wear. Neil rides the elevator back upstairs and lets Jonah game on. “He seemed a little disconnected and a little sad,” Neil recalls, “but no tears.” Dad half-joked to cheer him up: “Where’s my fuckin’ Mother’s Day card?”
A couple of evenings later, Judd Rosen appears on his caller ID.
“So,” Neil asks, “you got news for me?
“It starts with a B,” says the lawyer.
“Yeah, a B.”
After a year of negotiation and sorrow, the families of the 98 victims of the Surfside building collapse will receive $1.02 billion — a staggering settlement total approved by the judge on Thursday, June 23. Securitas has agreed to pay $517.5 million, by far the dominant plaintiff payout in the victims’ compensation fund and, according to Rosen’s firm, the largest pre-suit settlement in American history. “Jonah was one of the most important pieces of the puzzle to that case against the security company,” Rosen says. “That image of Jonah last year gave a little hope to people that there would be survivors. And now his story has resulted in this billion-dollar settlement — accountability, justice — so that’s gonna give people even more hope for the future. And we could all use a little more hope.”
Jonah maintains that everything this year happened for a reason, and he has the rest of his life to find out why. In the meantime, he doesn’t want to think about that night anymore. “I just don’t,” Jonah says. “It never defined me.” He does, however, want his dad to leave Collins Avenue behind: The Handlers will move off Surfside Beach as soon as the settlement goes through. Neil would trade it all for Stacie to yell at him one last time about putting more sunblock on their son, but he plans to deposit all of Jonah’s double portion of the pot into a faraway trust, and he’s already gotten him to take a summer job. The unthinkable aside, Jonah and his father are happy for the boy in the rubble to be known — for now, at least — as that young man in the Design District selling fancy popsicles out of a truck, the ones with the Oreos trapped inside.
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