Photo Of The Day

Photographer:  Richard Drew.

Photographer: Richard Drew.

Falling Man

In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity?s divine suction or by what awaits him.

The Falling Man?became a jarring symbol of the events that took place on September 11, 2001. Photographer Richard Drew actually?took 12 photos?of the man as he fell, but this particular photograph became famous because it depicted the subject falling straight down, almost as if he were diving. It was published inThe New York Times?the next day.

It has been estimated that?over 200 people?jumped from the World Trade Center that day, most of whom were trapped on the upper floors of the towers. Many also fell or were blown out of the windows. This has made it difficult to identify the subject of the photograph. The first subject suggested was Norberto Hernandez, and three other families claimed they were related to the man, but scientific analysis has discounted these theories.

The most likely candidate is?Jonathan Briley, who worked on the 106th floor of the North Tower for Windows of the World and was identified by colleagues, family, and close analysis of the photograph. Briley had previously been a sound engineer and lived in Mount Vernon. He was asthmatic, which means he would have suffered particularly brutally when the smoke from the crash began to rise. He was only 43 years old when he was killed.

The attack on the World Trade Center was one of the most observed catastrophes in history, and those who fell or jumped from the towers were, briefly, it?s most public victims. They emerged one or two at a time from a blanket of smoke and fire that rendered mass death virtually invisible. Nearly all the others killed that day – whether high in the trade center, on board the hijacked airplanes or deep inside the Pentagon – were beyond the sight of survivors and witnesses.

Those who came through the windows of the towers provided the starkest, most harrowing evidence of the desperate conditions inside. Since then, though, they have largely vanished from consideration. Newspapers rarely publish images of the falling people. Evacuation studies concentrated on the accounts of survivors.

The 9/11 Commission, which has compiled the most detailed history of the day, mentioned those who jumped only as they affected the people on the streets below.

Even now, there has been less fact-finding than guesswork. Some researchers say more than 200 people most likely fell or jumped to their death. Others say the number is half that, or fewer. None have been officially identified.

For the families of those who died, these uncertainties are bound to a sprawling spectrum of contradictory sentiments, impulses, and reluctance about examining this specific wound. Some raised questions about the manner of a loved one’s death in meetings at the medical examiner’s office, during the identification process, and continue to ponder it; others never pursued the matter in any public fashion.

Police helicopter pilots have described feeling helpless as they hovered along the buildings, watching the people who piled four and five deep into the windows, 1,300 feet in the air. Some held hands as they jumped. Others went alone. As the numbers grew, said Joseph Pfeifer, a fire battalion chief in the north tower lobby, he tried to make an announcement over the building’s public address system, not realizing it had been destroyed.

“Please don’t jump,” he said. “We’re coming up for you.”

Almost instinctually on Sept. 11, people recognized that they had an unfortunate view into an intensely private matter, an unseemly intrusion not just into someone’s death, but into the moment of their dying. American broadcast networks generally avoided showing people falling. A sculpture that depicted a victim, known as “Tumbling Woman,” was removed from display at Rockefeller Center after one week.

Some commentators later remarked that those who had fallen had made one brave final decision to take control of how they would perish. Researchers say many people had no choice. Witness accounts suggest that some people were blown out. Others fell in the crush at the windows as they struggled for air. Still others simply recoiled, reflexively, from the intense heat.

Suzanne McCabe, whose brother, Michael, worked on the 104th floor of the north tower, says she has no idea what happened to him. She has heard he may have tried to get to the roof. She says she tries to absorb new information at a measured pace. For her, detailed knowledge about what happened to her brother, even painful knowledge, would ultimately serve as balm. “The truth hurts,” she said, “but it also heals.”

But what we do know is the need to confront this picture and acknowledge the bravery of those souls who had no other choices, who experienced the horror of September 11 in its fullest form, and who need to be remembered, not struck from the record.

Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 A.M., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky?falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame?the Falling Man?became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew?s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.

The Falling Man

By Tom Junod


Falling Bodies, a 9/11 Image Etched in Pain

By Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer

New York Times