Today marks 19 years since the terror attacks in the U.S. on 9/11. For this post, I decided to talk about the fallen in quite a literal sense; those who jumped and/or fell to their deaths from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Shown at the bottom of this post is the iconic image The Falling Man, taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, that was published in newspapers following 9/11. The man was falling from the North Tower, and he’s captured mid-fall when he is momentarily in the shape of an arrow. The man in the photo has never been identified.
USA Today estimates that at least 200 people died by jumping/falling from the towers, based on a review of photos, video, and witness interviews; the New York Times estimated only 50. Less than a dozen were from the South Tower; the remainder were from the North Tower, which was hit first and collapsed last. Firefighters reported that 30-40 bodies landed on the adjacent Marriott Hotel. A firefighter was killed by a falling body as he was exiting the North Tower.
The fall would have lasted about 10 seconds, with people moving in the vicinity of 150 mph when they reached the ground. Those who fell actually ended up serving a greater good by prompting many in the South Tower to evacuate before it was hit.
These people were going to die. The question wasn’t if, it was how. With thick smoke and intense heat that was enough to soften steel, there was clearly no happy ending. Who knows how many jumped deliberately and how many fell, but regardless, what they were leaving wasn’t good.
After the fact, there was very limited talk about those who jumped/fell. Esquire reported that many newspapers received significant backlash for running The Fallen Man.
The New York City medical examiner’s office never gave estimates of number or identified people who had died by jumping/falling, but the cause of death listed on all 9/11 death certificates was homicide. A spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office said, “A ‘jumper’ is somebody who goes to the office in the morning knowing that they will commit suicide,” and added, “These people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out” (USA Today).
Louis Garcia, New York City’s chief fire marshal, said that it wasn’t much of a choice for the fallen; “If you put people at a window and introduce that kind of heat, there’s a good chance most people would feel compelled to jump” (New York Times).
An article in the Daily Mail suggested that the lack of public dialogue about those who jumped was the potential for religious interpretations that jumping went against God’s will. The article goes on to say that when a possible identity was suggested for the man captured in the photo named The Falling Man, the individual’s very religious family insisted that would have been a betrayal, and it couldn’t have been him. His daughter said, “He was trying to come home to us and he knew he wasn’t going to make it by jumping out a window.” Another daughter told a reporter, “That piece of shit is not my father” (Esquire).
One man was able to identify his wife in a photo of her falling, and it was actually helpful. He said that “to me, the photo of her falling was like finding the body.” He added that “I thought it was something that would help me move on. I needed to know how she died” (Daily Mail).
A Daily Utah Chronicle article includes quotes from an interview with Margaret Battin, a professor of philosophy and internal medicine at the University of Utah. Presumably it was an attempt to put a lid on a bit of the audience’s potential bias:
The topic of suicide is generally taboo in the U.S., a country which is heavily influenced by Christian religion. In coverage of 9/11, news organizations chose not to show footage of the jumpers in their reports. People across the country often deny that people jumped, saying they were instead thrown from the building by the flames and explosions.
… ‘To ask whether the 9/11 jumpers were suicides is to trade on the very negative connotations associated with the term suicide and to imply that they did something wrong or perhaps even sinful,’ [Margaret] Battin said.
… Battin believes that those who fell weren’t desperate to die, they were seeking an escape. ‘It seems simply wrong to me to call them suicides when that term brings with it so many negative connotations.’
It’s interesting (not in a good way) that on a day with such horrific events and so many dead, people will make a fuss over the fact that someone might have jumped rather than being roasted to death or crushed to smithereens when the towers fell. This is one of the areas where I just don’t get religion and the way some people use it to justify condemning others. How is roasting or smithereening God’s will? Everyone’s going to die anyway, but someone going the free-fall way is a “piece of shit” while someone else who’s roasting in awfully hell-like conditions is a proper God-fearing Christian?
Those people were dying anyway. But if there’s backlash about people who choose to fall rather than roast/smithereen, what do people think of those of us crazy folk who contemplate, try to, or do kill ourselves? What’s worse than a piece of shit? A whole tower worth of shit?
It’s all very easy for people to be self-righteous and say what’s right and what’s wrong. But when that shit really hits the fan, all that self-righteous crap might go straight out the window.
I wasn’t intending to have quite such an angry ending. However, as an actual crazy person who has tried actual suicide, I think a little less judgment could go a long way. That, and a little bit of recognition that when things get really, really desperate, whether the reason, the options that one might predict may not be the ones that are available.
Below is The Falling Man. It’s protected by copyright, but this small version is posted on Wikipedia under the fair use doctrine.