The beach where Sullivan’s toddler frolicked was just blocks away from Champlain Towers South, a 12-story oceanfront condominium in the suburb of Surfside that partially collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24. One of the first residents to be pulled from the mountain of rubble was 15-year-old Jonah Handler. Trapped with him was his mother, Stacie Dawn Fang, who became the first of 98 people to be declared dead in the tragedy.
When one of America’s worst structural engineering failures occurred, however, Sullivan and his family were already packing to return north.
“As much as I wanted to begin covering the nearby collapse for a magazine, I had to leave,” Sullivan, a veteran magazine and newspaper editor who now freelances and writes books, told me. “It is at once an unfair and easy comparison, but I grew up in New York City, and phone alerts about the fall of Champlain Towers South brought back memories of 9/11. Honestly, I blocked out Surfside in favor of Instagram. But I always remembered the part about the boy. How could you not? He didn’t deserve to be forgotten. On the whiteboard above my desk, I wrote: JONAH.”
This past June, on the one-year anniversary of the Surfside collapse, Sullivan delivered on that self-promise with an exclusive for Rolling Stone, “The ‘Miracle Boy’ of Surfside Shares His Story of Surviving the Condo Collapse — and Rebuilding His Life.” (In an upcoming print edition, the feature is known as “The Boy in the Rubble.”)
It is a 6,000-word, muscular and poetically driven narrative exploring Jonah’s life one year after the tragedy. Sullivan focuses on the tireless efforts of the teen and his father, Neil Handler, to help free Jonah from crippling trauma. They subscribe to a neurofeedback program called Pathwaves which, as Sullivan writes “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.” The treatments, several of which Sullivan observed, seem to be working. But thunderstorms, the bane of South Floridians’ existence much of the year, still spook Jonah, sending him running out of the condo where he and his Dad live, which stands within sight of the empty lot where his mother died.
Sullivan’s reporting demonstrates extraordinary empathy for the troubled, taciturn Jonah, pulling back in interviews when topics spark the young man’s anxiety but still probing gently to get the facts straight. His reporting also demonstrates an obsession with verification.
He watched the eyewitness video of Jonah’s rescue “in slow-motion, at different custom volume levels, at least 30 times.” He supplements that material with riveting scenes gleaned from tick-tock interviews with participants, such as the “The Squad” of Jonah’s Fire Department rescuers and the dog walker who first heard Jonah’s screams for help. A fact-checker went reviewed every inch of the story, including 230 footnotes, with Sullivan’s sources.
The story was two days from online publication when Sullivan received an 11th-hour drop of rescue-call logs — 87 pages of them — requiring rush of new confirmations. That and a final final trip to Surfside caused Sullivan and his editors to scramble for a new ending. It takes the reader on a fascinating journey of how Jonah became a linchpin of a billion-dollar settlement for survivors and ends with Jonah on a haunting note.
Nieman Storyboard interviewed Sullivan about how he gained access to the story and gained trust from Jonah and his father. He described his intensive reporting methods, and how he learned more about his protagonist through observation than interviews. Our email conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of the story.
How did you gain exclusive access?
Last December, checking off a to-do list two days before my second daughter was born, I cold-called Jonah’s lawyer. Always make nice with the lawyers. We had an encouraging chat — Jonah might be up for this, the lawyer said, and I seemed like a good guy. I had already prepared a 4,421-word email pitching myself and the story as “the one time the guys would have to talk about it all — the definitive story, on their terms, from their perspective, at their comfort level — to help them move on.” I hung up the phone, hit send and proceeded to gently annoy the lawyer over the course of the next six weeks. I told him that I’d be back in Miami for a family vacation in February. After texting the lawyer upon arrival at the airport on a Tuesday, he texted on Friday morning to meet him at his office that day. I left my wife and kids hanging at a friend’s pool. Jonah’s dad was sitting at the lawyer’s desk with a pack of Marlboros and a Yankee hat, sizing me up.
Did Jonah and his father require any ground rules before they would grant exclusive access to Rolling Stone?
Jonah’s dad, Neil, is an open book. I was actually the one who wanted to make promises — that I wouldn’t exploit a teenager, that I would not force Jonah to re-live any trauma that made him feel uncomfortable, that I would honor Jonah’s mom, Stacie, as best as I could. But also that I couldn’t just ignore what had happened, and that it might not be a story with a happy ending if there wasn’t one. Neil was starting a charity providing mental-health services to first responders, which I said that I could link to, if it became legit, but no promises. It did.
How much time did you spend with Jonah and his father?
There was the interrupted family vacation in February, which took me from the lawyer’s office, over to a high-school baseball game the very next morning and back across town to Jonah’s house for the day. Trust came fast: The Handlers invited me to Jonah’s therapy session that evening. I kept in touch with regular calls to Neil and occasional texts to Jonah. I returned for a weekend in March to attend a key event with first-responders and families of the victims of the collapse. I was supposed to go back in April, but I got COVID. I returned in May, with my deadline approaching, to discover an entire new ending to the story.
Teenagers can prove to be laconic interview subjects. How did you manage to overcome that obstacle with Jonah?
I didn’t! You’ll see below that Jonah speaks in downbeat, three- to four-word sentences. I knew that there would be almost no quotes in this story. But Jonah and I vibed over baseball and over making fun of our parents. He made me feel young, and I’d like to think that I made him feel a little closer to the outside world. As I picked up patterns and tried to comprehend the way he processed pain, I began using a writing hack that I’d spotted on Twitter from Seyward Darby, my old college-newspaper pal and the editor-in-chief at The Atavist: After an interview, record a Voice Memo of yourself, breaking down detail and synthesis. Too often, reporters forget to take notes about their own ideas, but that contemporaneous rambling behind the wheel of my rental-car ride home translated so crucially to the page.
Would you describe your writing process?
I’m an editor at heart, having spent the first 13 years of my career behind the scenes with fancy writers at Esquire, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and the magazine I founded at Bleacher Report. So my writing is organizing: I agree on sections and structure with my editor very early in the reporting process, then dump ideas, section-by-section, into a Google Doc — an accordion outline — and report the hell out of each bucket. The document becomes a 100-plus-page collection of phone numbers, interview notes, turns of phrase, string and footnotes that I eventually transfer over to my drafts for fact-checking. The most important question I’ve started asking myself before dumping that reporting onto a blank page is a simple one that I learned from one of my former writers, Mirin Fader: What is this story REALLY about? I print the outline and hand-write that at the top. This time, at least according to my chicken-scratch, the answer was: HE WAS A VICTIM AND SURVIVOR BOTH. Tension = Redefine what a survivor means. Not succumb to tragedy porn. Enough death. Could he define what it means to continue? MIRACLE BOY. Set out to prove, to himself at least, that a survivor is not a viral victim but one of the rest of us, a teenager on TikTok. Not a victim but a vindication of resolve. Surviving was the easy part.
Were there writers, stories or books that inspired you as you worked on this narrative?
When I was 27, I was fortunate enough to edit Tom Junod as he reflected on the 10-year-anniversary of 9/11 and wrote his masterpiece “The Falling Man.” You read that story once, you never forget it; The images of disaster become tattoos of humanity. I could never match Tom’s quest, but I hoped that Jonah’s story — despite its obvious one-year-later news peg — could last beyond an anniversary.
What lessons about your craft did this story teach you?
When attempting to humanize the horrendous, don’t overwrite or over-empathize.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red, Sullivan’s answer in blue.
The ‘Miracle Boy’ of Surfside Shares His Story of Surviving the Condo Collapse — and Rebuilding His Life
Sixteen-year-old Jonah Handler opens up about his rescue from the rubble, a year of balancing trauma with hope — and how he became ‘the key witness’ to a billion-dollar settlement
JUNE 23, 2022Jonah 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. Deft use of language—”soft whistle-bloop”and the simile “like the devil at batting practice”— makes this opening graph extraordinarily vivid. How did you come up with what tweets, texts and DMS sound like? In his top-edit, editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman had me tighten and simplify this first sentence. On deadline at about 3 a.m., I played YouTube videos of the notification sounds from Twitter, iMessage and Snapchat in a syncopated loop over one another. Then I closed my eyes. How and when did the simile of the devil at bat come to you? The Miami Herald’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of Surfside included an investigation that went too deep for my piece into the structural and legal implications of this “boom” sound. But an accompanying interactive story allowed me to listen to an accurate, nine-second simulation of rebar fracturing in a lab. I must’ve replayed that clip 50 times before I got to another part of the story — an interview conducted over the booming sound of Jonah at batting practice — and this simile came to me. It also helped me cut a very, very bad metaphor about hell that had been lingering a few paragraphs later.
They met on the small balcony off the living room of Unit 1002, scanning northward out of Champlain Towers South. Why did you use the specific number of their unit instead of just saying “their condo?” I had originally introduced the floor number three paragraphs later, in the description of the fall itself, counting down the stories, but that writing was too over-the-top, and the fall itself was too fast for a countdown. An apartment number feels welcoming, like home, but this particular number also felt oddly clinical — in a condo, you have to call it a “unit” rather than, say, Apartment 1014 — as if this home might become a potential crime scene. 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.
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. The opening is stark. Why did you decide to begin with this scene? I would have preferred, as a human, to begin with Jonah’s recovery — his steadfastness, his dignity. I was concerned about sensationalizing something that was inherently sensational and, of course, profoundly sad. But how could I not begin at the top? It’s where the story begins. How were you able to reconstruct and verify it? Who and what were your sources? Jonah’s father, Neil, provided an initial overview during my first weekend with the Handlers, according to the version Jonah had told him. The eyewitness video — part of which went viral — was essential; I watched it in slow-motion, at different custom volume levels, at least 30 times. As I got to know Jonah, I would bring up that night when he seemed comfortable, but he is triggered easily and I would back off. I met the firefighters who rescued him at an event that becomes a scene later in the story. Then, with Jonah and Neil’s blessing and a lot of back-and-forth with the fire department, I interviewed four of them on Zoom, another on the phone, followed by the rescue leader several times via phone and text. Before I started writing the scene, I sat for one very intense interview with Jonah and his dad in their living room. While we were closing the story, I checked the details with Jonah one last time — then he said he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Our fact-checker, Jonathan Bernstein, ran through it all with Neil and the rescue leader and the video, then my editor helped simplify a scene that was dramatic enough as it was, without overtelling.
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. How did you find out how much it weighed? I interrupted the firefighters as they were in the middle of a tick-tock of the rescue to ask: “How heavy do you think that slab was?” We started doing the math right there on Zoom, then I cross-checked the dimensions and the volume of concrete against video and photos. Our fact-checker updated those calculations with the rescue lead. 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. How many times did you interview Jonah? Were they all in person or other means? Four proper sit-downs at his home and one in his dad’s car. Four all-day shadowing sessions. One final phone interview. And some texting. Given Jonah’s reticence to relive his tragic experience, how did he respond to your presence as a journalist? He was cool with my being around. And Jonah did relive the night of the collapse with me, in one of our final sit-downs, in more detail than I believe he ever had out loud with his father or his therapists. When it became clear to me during that conversation that we were approaching territory that might be too difficult for him, I asked Jonah if he wanted to talk about something else, and so we did. It was like that: in-and-out of real talk and shooting the shit. 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.
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. How did you find the dog walker? I looked him up on Spokeo, the service I tend to use for cold calls. How did you know about the type of hat he wore and why did you select this detail? We walked through his night step-by-step together in Surfside, from his apartment to the collapse site and back, re-creating his memories and referencing his cell-phone photos. We then confirmed details based on his iPhone metadata and pictures that other bystanders and outlets had taken of the dog walker on the scene, including one of his hat from a local news station before sunrise. In trying to set as much of the opening scene from Jonah’s perspective as possible, I wanted to introduce a protagonist who often sees the world through baseball. Q: Why didn’t you name him? A: Jonah never knew the guy’s name, so why add a superfluous character? I really wanted to connect readers with the names Jonah and Stacie — with their emotional bond, not someone else’s interpretation of it, especially my own. 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. Did the rescue operator give you this great simile or is it yours? That’s all him. I have a friend who’s a firefighter and a poet; kinda makes sense. 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. How many members of the Squad did you interview? How did you find out about the patter they kept up with Jonah and his mother’s statement about his age? The rescue lead told me in the initial interview with The Squad, then I confirmed with the other guys later. Jonah didn’t remember one of the other moments of small talk, so we cut that and added the birthday mention, which he did. It ended up providing a near-deadline switch to introduce Jonah’s age here in Paragraph No. 10 instead of No. 1, which helped to first establish him as a “normal” teenager, then reinforce his beyond-his-years bravery.
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. How did you obtain those last-minute records? A response to my long-standing request with the central records bureau — more than three hours of radio traffic and 87 spreadsheeted pages of firefighter code — arrived in my inbox 48 hours before we hit publish online. I began cross-referencing the files while pushing a swing at the playground. Why did you put the radio alert in italics instead of in quotes? My editor dislikes italicized quotes. I pushed for them here because these two sentences really did cut through the staccato radio language of Miami-Dade Fire & Rescue that night — full sentences ringing out as urgently human.
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?” What’s the source of this dialogue? I couldn’t quite make it out from the video, as I did with Jonah’s dialogue in the following sentence by reading his lips, then converting the YouTube clip to turn down the levels of the clanging alarm and turn up Jonah’s voice. For the shoes quote, the fire-truck driver was in the middle of his familiar recollection of that night until we really went second-by-second and I jogged his memory for this moment. Then I cross-checked the reference with the rescue leader standing next to him and with Jonah. 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.”
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.” Is this here as foreshadowing? It’s more like setting the stakes: This young man’s recovery has million-dollar value to the world outside of him, but his admitted struggle is to find peace in his own mind. If anything, this is a moment to pull away the shadow and shine a light on Jonah, on his terms.
Jonah was a young man of few words to begin with, and he chooses them wisely in speaking to Rolling Stone: Why do you keep referencing the magazine? I don’t love the chest-thumping, to be honest, but it’s less of a recurring flex — EXCLUSIVE! — and more of a signal to readers that we did this work for you, and this story is going to tell you more than everything you think you know about a subject that has been covered so well and in such detail already. “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. Do you consider the previous passage the story’s nut graf or section, one that steps back from the narrative and puts it in context? In almost every first draft I’ve filed to Rolling Stone, I’ve tried to camouflage the nut graph. Such straightforward copy seems kinda newspaper-y. But I love the digital-news sensibility that Noah has brought to the new Rolling Stone: No matter how pretty a nut-graph-free magazine story may look in dead-tree print, you gotta hook internet readers, and you gotta be clear at all costs to beauty.
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. What was your source for his medical condition? Medical records, photos, Jonah’s memory and text messages from the doctor to his dad. 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. Explain the “mighty” reference. My mom used to read me the Ernest Thayer poem “Casey at the Bat” as a lullabye. This is a reference to the final line, which struck me as a bit of a metaphor for the grasping at hope that represents the heart-center of our story: Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; / the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, / and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; / but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.
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. Are you there with him? Yes. I hadn’t met Jonah yet when I showed up at his high-school baseball stadium and watched the first two innings, searching for him in the dugout, until I realized that he wasn’t there. I called his dad, drove to Surfside and arrived just as Jonah was getting out of bed with a cold. 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.” How important is it for you to capture dialogue like this in narrative nonfiction? I learned a lot from documentary filmmaking, in the edit bay, sifting for that one all-encompassing or character-introducing quote from a sit-down, direct-to-camera interview. But you can’t force character. A good doc gives space to candid dialogue over corny self-identification — and good narrative nonfiction could use more vérité. In this case, my editor had me go back over the stray audio I had from my very first interaction with Jonah. It wasn’t as stray as I thought, because it was so candidly him.
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. Why did you select those three words out of the conversation? Breaking the fourth wall can be dangerous in such an immersive story, especially since I don’t really enjoy those “I’m hanging out with this celebrity at a hipster café” types of show-off profile intros. I prefer to disappear and let the perspective of my characters guide the story. But the main setting of this story was at once so obvious to the characters and shocking to an outsider that I had to kind of wave at the reader, 1,800 words in, and ask them to come along for a journey with unforeseen layers that keep unfurling. 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. How do you know the distance? I used the Measure Distance tool on Google Maps in Brooklyn, then walked one foot in front of the other in Miami… and rounded down just in case.
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.”
Jonah wept, for one minute, into the pillow. “Everything happens for a reason,” he told his father. Neil hasn’t seen him cry since. How were you able to reconstruct and verify this scene? Neil has an incredibly detailed memory. He’s also, you know, a used-car salesman, so I made pains to double- and triple-verify his memories. In this case, one of Jonah’s therapists politely declined to be interviewed, even for fact-checking, and his doctor wasn’t around for the moment. Neil told me this story twice at first. After pushing him on accurate timeframes, I corrected him thanks to the late-arriving radio-dispatch log, and a family friend whom he asked to leave the room then told the story contemporaneously. But Neil told me that he remembers this moment better than anything in his life; I took him at his word… then still asked him to re-tell it in front of his son; he remembered it the same way. Our fact-checker confirmed it one last time. You’ll notice, though, that this scene has a bit more attribution to “remembers” and “says” because of that reliance on memory without a ton of independent verification.
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. Nicely turned phrase. Was it the product of much revision or just flow? I actually thought this was pretty straightforward compared to the next sentence — which I could tell my editor thought was a corny metaphor but I kept sticking back in. I know from experience that when a writer does that, and hopes the editor doesn’t notice, that the editor always does, but knows you believe in the line and gives in. Sometimes. How much revision was involved in the full story? A: There were five or six versions, but we never really tore up anything… until we added an entirely new section with 48 hours to go. 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.
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. How did you learn about the method to explain it in such clear terms? The life coach broke this down for me twice. Then I analyzed the raw data and received — with the Handlers’ consent, of course — a readout from the coach, who then simplified the method to me and our fact-checker, twice. Plus, I underwent the treatment myself and received my own readout, which helped me understand the process a lot more. 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. Are you with him at this time? I actually had to catch a flight with my family right after the therapy session and, while Neil and Jonah recounted the ensuing anecdote several times, I didn’t appreciate — and they couldn’t pin down — its context or timing until the revision phase, when a family friend and a readout from the life coach about Jonah’s next visit confirmed that this moment took place right after I left. So we moved up the anecdote to an even more sensible spot. 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. What’s this sticker reference and do you expect readers to understand what it means without explaining? LOL. Supreme is the most popular streetwear brand in the world! And one of the essential logos of the 21st Century. Don’t age me. Where did Jonah get the patches? Never asked. Just took a photo. I love taking photos of rooms and places in stories; learned to turn it into a habit while editing the great Michael J. Mooney at Bleacher Report’s B/R Mag. [/annotate] 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.” Is the previous scene reconstructed? If so, how did you do so and verify its accuracy? Yes. Neil told it to me, then I ran it by Jonah. Then I wrote it and had Neil tell it to me again, then I ran it by Jonah again. Then I independently checked it with a family friend and with the security guard in Jonah’s lobby on my way out of his building, and our fact-checker checked it by Neil before publication.
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. What do you use to record your detailed reporting, observations and dialogue: Notebook and audio recorder, or just a notebook? Legal pad combined with the Voice Memos app, often at the same time as I sense a key audio moment arriving. It’s essential to my process to quickly name the audio file with that essential snippet and upload it to my Google Drive folder for the story. Mostly this is a habit born out of fear of losing the audio — but also as a means of quote-by-quote cross-checking, which I learned from covering the NBA for my book; beat writers don’t have time to transcribe an entire press conference. 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. This is the first time you introduced another named character besides Jonah and Neil? Why? And besides the life coach, but that’s a great catch, because it was intentional. Jonah’s POV is so centered on his father and his therapists that I didn’t want too much sprawl. Nor did I want the reader to have to do too much work. But mostly I wanted this introduction to hold as much emotional power as this young woman had over me. “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. Does Jonah tell you this later? Did you observe the ceremony and then debrief him? I was sitting right next to him for the ceremony until he took the stage — I didn’t know she was the mayor either! — then we joked about it at lunch right after.
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.” You use asides like this to envelope the reader in the story’s action. How did you settle on this approach? Neil is full of mantras and great overarching quotes. When I write more medium-length news features for RollingStone.com, they’re often about famous people, and I tend to plug in the “good” quotes more frequently. For longer features, I really try to let the facts speak for themselves without getting bogged down in one-liners. But I kept coming back to this quote, so much so that you’ll see it return in the next section, even though I usually find “sequel copy” too redundant to keep.
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 …” Did you interview Ms. Furman? OK, so: This is the aforementioned surprise section. Out of nowhere, but probably because I’d earned his trust, Jonah and Neil’s lawyer offered me an embargoed, behind-the-scenes look at the Rosebud moment of the Surfside settlement, which had been going down behind the scenes in the weeks since my previous visit to Miami. It tied everything together. I had to move fast, and I had to include Furman’s voice. But she couldn’t speak forthrightly until the settlement was complete, and the settlement was going to be complete on the day before the one-year anniversary of the collapse — the day for which we agreed to embargo this exclusive. I would have to reverse-engineer from publication for a longer, more complex story of a shadow legal battle alongside Jonah’s recovery. So I relied on police body-cam video to introduce Furman, then got to work.
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. Haunting line. Can you describe its composition and revision? The first half was me speaking it out loud, in natural conversation with the lawyer — interview transcripts often provide organic quotes from the writer that help to write themselves — and the second half always stuck with me from that super-hard level in Super Mario World. 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. Did you attend the hearing? I got Covid and couldn’t make it. I was so frustrated, because I originally wanted to utilize that hearing to bring in more survivors and families of the victims to the story. But the ceremony from the previous section gifted that to me by surprise. Then I heard this audio from The Miami Herald’s excellent podcast “Collapse” and confirmed it, for the important and complex perspective of the condo owners. “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. How did you settle on the structure of the piece, leaving the legal tangle until later? I had originally threaded the settlement’s legal battle throughout the piece, with a flick toward the bigger picture in parts of each section. But Jonah and Neil didn’t think about the settlement all that often; the denouement was building fast and behind the scenes — a second story around them. So I swapped out an unfurling for extra meaning — for an extra section — and ended up finding a resolution. I had already reported it; I’d just been in too deep — too pre-planned — to write through the surprise ending. Do you outline or make storyboards? Yes! Per above, I like to settle on sections and structure with my direct editor very early in the process. As great top editors with fresh eyes do, of course, editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman “Beautiful Mind”-ed his way through a late-ish draft, encouraging me to slow down and set up Jonah’s eventual role in the settlement. And as any decent magazine writer should do when the boss asks you nicely to fix something, I stayed up all night, reviewing hundreds of pages of court documents, circling previously ignored chicken-scratch from my legal pads, pulling out turns of phrase from an old Apple Notes file and applying even more focus and clarity to the final batch of fresh writing than I did to the lede.
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. Was it a challenge to get the financial aspects of the story correct? The financial limitations of the settlement were pretty well-documented in the case docket, but I obtained documents that were at once more complex and clarifying for me and, I hope, for the reader. 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. Were you able to interview the judge? If not, how do you know what he wanted? I really, really annoyed some judges, hoping that they’d talk to me because Jonah’s story pulls at the heartstrings. When this judge spoke from the bench, though, he already spoke from the heart. But I chose not to quote him at all, to keep this a survivors’ story, not a systematic one.
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.” Why use this physical action? I’d broken the fourth wall once, introducing Neil topless looking over his terrace. This visual felt very “Miami” to me, in the moment. 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. Were you able to attend the deposition? If not, how do you know what occurred? Sorry, need to protect my sources here. 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. How many people did you interview to make this statement? Not allowed to say. 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.” The variety of documentation you amassed is impressive. Why did you keep looking for so many ways to document the story you told? I’ve edited a lot of anniversary stories, and I’ve edited even more stories about victims and bystanders to injustice. There can be a performative sadness — the mythologized memories that people save for “60 Minutes.” But I’ve always appreciated writers who record the history of tragedy without imposed drama — with the court documents, the FOIA-requested records, the depositions and the real talk that can be available as tools thanks to the passage of time. This one minute of tearful audio was actual drama; no “exclusive” interview could replace on-the-actual-record emotion.
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.” Did Jonah testify? He didn’t want to; his public testimony is, in many ways, this story.
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. Great action verb? How and when did you choose it? I looked back at my personal photos from last June, hanging out peacefully at a nearby beach with my family. One of those Live photos — the little flipbooks that I never know how to turn off — popped up, and my daughter was dancing. I’d never written the word “sashay,” only said it, and my editor cut this sentence two or three times. It’s the one that I spent the most time writing, then fought most to keep. 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.
“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. You have a knack for poetic imagery. Where does that come from? As with the simile-slinging firefighter in the lede, sources never get enough credit for their own poetry — Neil, Jonah and Jonah’s uncle put me on that boat and that balcony; these phrases just wrote themselves from their interviews combined. 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.” Is this a reconstruction? How did you verify it? If I’m going to include dialogue that I can’t hear directly, it’s important for me to ask for recollections from each speaker, contemporaneously and independently. Unpromoted and in passing, the lawyer brought this up a few days after his conversation with Neil. Toward the end of our interview, I asked him to repeat his memory of the dialogue, word-for-word. As soon as the breakfast interview ended, I called Neil from the sidewalk; he was busy, but I asked him if he remembered that phone call. A couple weeks later, our fact-checker did the same. I also had Neil check the timestamp of the call on his iPhone Recents tab.
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.” How long did the story take from start to finish? Six months, two days and six hours, from my initial request for access to publication onlin.. I was working on another investigative feature in parallel, shifting back-and-forth from the tragedy in Surfside to the mysterious death of a hunter in Africa.
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. Goosebump ending! Was the choice of the trapped Oreos a deliberate nod to Jonah’s position after the collapse? I found myself looking at the menu for the popsicle truck online, for some basic context and fact-checking, when I realized that I’d been to the truck myself a year earlier. My daughter had ordered the Oreo flavor, and I remembered that the cookie really was quite difficult to dislodge, relatively. I remembered that my child had cried out for help — that we take help, and the simple, living joy of ice cream, for granted.
Chip Scanlan is an award-winning newspaper reporter who taught writing at The Poynter Institute for several years. He lives and writes in St. Petersburg, Florida, publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons and new book “Writers on Writing.”