SURFSIDE, Fla. — Nicholas Balboa lives in Arizona, but he was in the right place at the right time Thursday, helping to rescue a boy who was buried in the rubble after a South Florida condominium partially collapsed.
Update 8:53 p.m. EDT June 25: In a Facebook post, Monsignor Edward Pace High School officials confirmed that the boy who was saved from the rubble was Jonah Handler, 15, who will be a junior at the school this year.
“Pace sophomore Jonah Handler was the young boy pulled from the rubble yesterday morning,” the post read. “He is currently being treated at the hospital and we are praying for his full recovery.”
Handler’s mother, Stacie Fang, 54, was identified as the first fatality in the collapse, authorities said.
On Friday, the Handler and Fang families released a statement, according to the Miami Herald.
“There are no words to describe the tragic loss of our beloved Stacie. The members of the Fang and Handler family would like to express our deepest appreciation for the outpouring of sympathy, compassion and support we have received. The many heartfelt words of encouragement and love have served as a much-needed source of strength during this devastating time. On behalf of Stacie’s son, Jonah, we ask you now to please respect our privacy to grieve and to try to help each other heal.”
Original report: Balboa, 31, of Glendale, was visiting his father in Surfside, CNN reported. At about 1:30 a.m. EDT, Balboa was walking his dog when he said he heard a loud noise.
“It sounded like thunder,” Balboa told ABC News. “I honestly felt like it was a storm rolling in.”
It wasn’t. The Champlain Towers South condo had partially collapsed, and 55 of the building’s 136 units had crumbled to the ground. One person has been confirmed dead and 99 people are still unaccounted for. Officials said 102 people have been identified as safe.
Balboa walked closer to the sound and saw plumes of dust rising from the building.
“I went up the street and saw the dust cloud going through the corridor of buildings,” Balboa told The New York Times.
Balboa and another man walked along the beach near the back side of the condo, telling CNN that the scene was “quiet, eerie,” and “almost out of a horror movie.”
That’s when Balboa heard a boy cry out for help.
“I saw an arm sticking out of the wreckage, and he was screaming, ‘Can you see me?’” Balboa told WSVN. “We started to climb up to him to try and see if we could get him free, but it was too heavy, too much rebar, stuff like that, so it was going to take quite a bit of an effort to get him out. He was just screaming, ‘Don’t leave me, don’t leave me.’”
Balboa flashed the light on his cellphone to signal for help, and a police officer walked to the scene, CNN reported. Rescue crew members then came over and worked to free the boy from the rubble.
The crew dug through debris and used a saw to get the boy out, Balboa told the Times.
“It was surreal. I can’t believe that a building that’s made out of concrete and supposed to stand up to hurricanes and weather just one night decided to collapse,” Balboa told the newspaper. “To be completely honest, the comparison, the stark image that I had in my mind, was 9/11, just seeing all that debris and rubble.”
According to WSVN, the boy was later identified as Jonah Handler, although Balboa told ABC News that the boy said he was “about 10 years old.” However, Handler was identified as the 15-year-old boy who was rescued, according to WPLG. Handler is a junior varsity baseball player at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens.
His mother, Stacie Fang, 54, was identified as the first fatality in the collapse, authorities said.
“There was a bed frame and a mattress that was laying above him, so I can only assume that might have been his bed, judging by the size of the mattress,” Balboa told WSVN. “We got fire and police over there, so I was able to signal a police officer using the flashlight of my phone, and so the police officer came over. He got up to him.”
When he first saw the building on the ground, Balboa said he recalled thinking that no one could have survived, CNN reported. He was amazed when he heard the boy cry for help.
“He’s a guardian angel,” Balboa told WSVN. “That’s all I can say given that he came out unscathed.”
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