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How Rolling Stone revisited a mass tragedy to ‘humanize the horrendous’

After the Florida condo collapse, Matt Sullivan vowed not to forget a teen survivor. The year-later profile has credibility, empathy and a haunting ending.

In the first half of 2021, Matt Sullivan and his family took refuge in Miami from the pandemic in New York City, and to finish his first book, “Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow.”
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.

Magazine writer and author Matt Sullivan
Matt Sullivan

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

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