‘He showed people the way they should live’: Alabama doctor from Florida condo collapse remembered for friendship, faith

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Dr. Gary Cohen (Courtesy Rachel Backal)

UPDATE (7/8)On July 7, Rabbi Yossi Friedman of Chabad of Alabama confirmed that the body of Gary Cohen had been recovered from a collapsed condo building in Surfside, Florida.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — “We’re still looking for a miracle.”

Dr. Gary Cohen (Courtesy of the Cohen family)

Eyal Ron prefers to speak about his friend, Dr. Gary Cohen, in the present as he and many others hold out hope that the Birmingham doctor and his brother, Dr. Brad Cohen, will be found among the rubble of Champlain Towers South outside Miami.

Cohen, a physiatrist and attending physician at Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center, and his brother were two of nearly 120 people who went missing for weeks following the partial collapse of the complex on June 24 in Surfside, Florida. As of July 8, 36 bodies had been recovered.  

One month before coming to Florida to visit his sick father, the 58-year-old doctor had celebrated his son’s wedding in Memphis, Tennessee. According to friends, he was staying in town with his brother, who had a condo at Champlain Towers South.

“We are all so heartbroken by this unforeseeable tragedy,” said Rachel Backal, Cohen’s niece. “My Uncle Gary was such an inspiration to us all, always brightening our day with his positivity and warm smile.”

A friend

Dr. Steven Fern has known Cohen since they were boys. Both of their fathers had grown up together in Brooklyn and their families had always been a part of each other’s lives, even though the Ferns lived on Long Island while the Cohens lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Fern said the same way Cohen’s father looked after his father, Cohen also took him under his wing and treated him like family. Fern still keeps a photo of the two them together in his office in Connecticut.

Gary Cohen, left, and Steven Fern sometime in the 1970s. (Courtesy Steven Fern)

“He was more of a brother than a friend,” Fern said.

In many ways, Cohen was a mirror image of Fern. Both were doctors, both were Jewish and both loved tennis.

“We never argued or fought ever,” he said.

Fern had last seen Cohen and the family at his son’s wedding in May. Not long afterward, Fern had talked with Cohen about coming up to New York to watch the U.S. Tennis Open with him.

Ron, owner of Iron City Insurance Brokers, has known Cohen since he first came to Alabama in the early 2000s. Both of their families spent Memorial Day at Lake Logan Martin and had plans to go back there for the Fourth of July before the accident.

“He can be very calculated and scientific, but he can also surprise people,” Ron said.

One example of Cohen’s unpredictable nature was how during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he would safely go to people’s houses to visit with them and see if they were alright.

“He’s a great doctor and a great friend,” Ron said.

Connected to his faith

Rabbi Yossi Friedman of Chabad of Alabama said that as a doctor, Cohen put the person first.

“He was very interested in treating the person as opposed to a malady,” Friedman said.

Cohen treated his faith seriously, spending years going to Temple Beth-El as well as taking part in many other programs in the Jewish community.

Gary Cohen and his wife, Mindy. (Courtesy Rachel Backal)

“Throughout his life, he was constantly learning,” Friedman said. “He continues to seek out ways of living a Jewish life.”

Ron said Cohen was deeply passionate about and connected to Judaism in a deep way.

“He did a lot of reading and learning and had a strong connection to Israel,” he said. “That was a very important part of his life.”

Like many watching as bodies are being pulled from the rubble, Friedman holds out hope that he will be found safe, but with every passing minute, he knows those chances don’t seem realistic. And while he does not have answers on why the building collapsed or what it all means, he feels one positive aspect that has come from the tragedy has been the community coming together to support one another.

“It’s just the way we have come together in pain and concern for each other that has been heartwarming,” Friedman said. “If anything comes from this, it doesn’t need to take a horrible event to bring them together, but that we must always find ways to support one another.”

Looking for a miracle

For Fern, he can’t grieve or cry over his longtime friend until Cohen has been found, the possibility of which he believes is pretty low at this point.

Dr. Steven Fern and Gary Cohen in Memphis, Tennessee for his son’s wedding. (Courtesy Steven Fern)

“I don’t think we’ll ever see or hear from him again,” he said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to find him.”

Backal said that while she and the family pray for a miracle, the harsh reality of the situation continues to be heartbreaking.

“We are all still shocked by it and very emotional as we wait to hear updates regarding the incident,” she said.

Ron has not allowed himself to lose hope quite yet.

“There’s a lot of things we can’t explain,” he said.

If there is one thing that Ron has taken from the whole tragedy, it’s to never take a moment for granted.

“There’s nothing we can predict,” he said. “Enjoy what you have.”

To Fern, enjoying life and never taking anything for granted is one part of Cohen’s legacy.

“I guess his legacy was he showed people the way you should live,” Fern said.

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