Social Issues

Remembering the Fallen of 9/11

New York City skyline with World Trade Centre memorial spotlights
Dan DeChiaro / CC BY

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.

The fallen

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.

Public reaction

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).

Was it suicide?

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.’

Good choices aren’t always available

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.

The Falling Man
The Falling Man Β© Richard Drew, Associated Press [fair use]

62 thoughts on “Remembering the Fallen of 9/11”

  1. Never heard of someone being criticized for jumping out of a burning building to their death, but it doesn’t surprise me to learn of it. People are horrible

          1. I agree, but I think that’s because most people are manual empaths, if they’re empathetic at all. Actual natural empaths never seem to sway, in my experience. Or maybe my definition of natural empath is different to some peoples’ πŸ˜†. I definitely agree that very empathetic people are in the minority, which is indicated by the proportions of people who work in jobs helping people vs. not.

            1. So, yeahβ€” the original point about a large amount of people being ‘horrible’/non-empathetic or whatever, my reasoning says that there is the potential for that, if enough people are exposed to/adopt unhealthy ideas. But the fact that some people clearly do think bad ideas isn’t necessarily something to worry aboutβ€” more the number of them. But I do also agree that the number seems worryingly high and growing πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ.

            2. I think it’s more complicated than that. Not everyone who works in helping professions is empathetic. And as humans we all have the capacity for empathy, but the extent to which people tap into that varies depending on culture, upbringing, and other factors.

            3. Yeah, no I totally agree that there are exceptions in everything. Not all empaths work in jobs where they are helping people, or they are at some times and not others (e.g. me!).

              I was trying to talk about ‘on the whole’, actually. Definitely there are some twats in mental health for example πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ and actual psychopaths, but the effort it takes to do these jobs or be a nurse/firefighter, and given that they traditionally don’t get paid well, it’s definitely a strong selection factor which mostly filters for very kind people! Nurses have such a tough and high-energy job, and they have the highest proportion of true empaths of any group that I’ve met πŸ˜„.

              Which is why I always enjoy being in hospital, even for surgeries! Being in a ward and witnessing the kindness and efforts of nurses is something else (as well as the banter and dark humour!), and an experience I really value and keep with me! It’s enough to restore your faith in humanity, as well as just be filled with wonder at the achievements of medicine. Honestly, I almost want to cry in hospital sometimes haha, and I feel so emotional when I have to leave! From just a few hours of getting to know and interact with nurses. Actually yeah, I genuinely find that difficult. Amazing.

  2. Wow. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when this happened. It was horrible. Then, of course, there are the lingering health consequences for survivors and first responders (cancer and other chronic health issues caused by the debris floating through the air for days), as well as the huge emotional impact this had on so many people. I’m reminded of a metaphor David Foster Wallace used in Infinite Jest, while explaining what a suicidal person might be going through, comparing the mental agony to that of being trapped in a burning skyscraper. It’s pretty on-point.

    “…Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling β€˜Don’t!’ and β€˜Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

  3. I remember watching it in real time with co-workers and that was the one thing that really struck me. Making the decision to burn or jump. I know I would have jumped. “The Falling Man” is still my favorite 9/11 documentary and I try to watch every year.

  4. I would like to think of those that jumped as taking their power back. The terrorist didn’t get a say in how they died they did. Maybe I’m wrong but it takes courage i think to make those tough choices.

  5. I can remember this like it was yesterday. Seeing it on tv, stuck watching and not believing what I was seeing.
    My heart in my throat and feeling torn for all, whether in the building, witnessing it from the side even just living there. Their country.
    I was in tears and in shock. I couldn’t imagine what those people felt in those building, making a decision to hope they could get out, to being burned, or to jump.

    As you know, if religion comes into it, I react strongly like you. For those religions to have that kind of view for those that chose to jump makes me feel sick. They have no care, or empathy.

  6. I understand religion from various viewpoints, including the one that doesn’t believe in a god. And, it is self righteousness! All of it goes right out the window in a disaster, except the judgments. They seem to remain. With some believers. Not all people live like the mainstream. I know I don’t. I have carved out my own beliefs, that are based on my experiences. It’s a lot like Bertrand Russel said. β€œThe world is horrible, horrible, horrible.”

      1. From the Christian Right, yes, usually. I don’t judge other at all though. Religion, for me, is something that has been tailored by me, based on my life experiences. There are not a whole lot of Liberal Christians out there.

  7. Interesting post, Ashley. Hard to believe it’s been 19 years since that day. This is a bit off topic, but I was reading something recently on terrorism. Talked about how the whole goal of terrorism is to instill irrational fear, panic. After 9/11, I remember suddenly feeling life was less safe. Yet, there are statistics out there I’ve seen that show one is much more likely to die of heart disease or in a automobile accident than from a terrorist attack.

    1. It’s interesting how we evaluate risk. People are far more likely to die in a car accident than a plane accident, much less a hijacked plane. Yet the risk of driving is acceptable and comfortable.

  8. That picture is the worst. I will never forget that day and seeing the live images. I was in college and we had a lockdown on campus. It shook me up badly. I was away from home and had parents that at the time worked for the Federal government and State. They were on call and hard to get ahold of. Talks of riots in the prisons were scary and I feared for my parents lives. Then I so broken hearted for so many people who lost the people they loved so much. The world was broken that day…I was broken and changed.

    1. I was in school at the time too, and I remember watching it on the news in student residence. It’s one of those things that no one around at that time could ever possibly forget.

  9. I remember waking up that morning, turning on tv to find that horrendous event being on every channel. I still cannot get those images out of my mind, watching those jets barrel into the towers, watching the towers collapse.
    As far as religion, those who have those crazy ideas are wrong. Let me explain why. The late Rev. Kathryn Kuhlman was asked why some people are not healed. She replied, “that’s the first thing I am going to ask God when I see Him”.
    I said that because I have no answer why things like 9/11 happen. I cannot blame God, but I can blame pure hatred in the name of a radical religion though.
    Most of the wars on earth have happened in the name of religion.

    1. It’s sad when some people choose to twist religion to suit their own hatred, beliefs, and judgments, rather than drawing on it to find compassion for others.

  10. I think there was a picture of a different guy falling that two different women thought was their husband.

    That idea of misinterpreting things and making them more complicated ties into the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. There were certainly a lot of those flying around about 9/11.

    1. Ah, ok! Makes sense.

      are certainly a lot of those flying around* πŸ˜†.

      Actually I saw a comment on an article about something earlier, which made me think somethingβ€” if people are so used to being lied to by news/people in authority or whatever, then naturally there is some logic and rationality behind putting more weight into conspiracy theories. Such that the bar for somebody putting weight into them would be lowered.

      It’s a similar effect that’s behind Trump’s and Boris’ strategies of doing/saying so many crazy things, that nobody knows what to take seriously anymore. It’s one of the long-term dangers we should be wary about of false information/clickbait news etc.

        1. Nope! πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ A stunning example of that is my parents reading and believing things in the Daily Mail! Which is the trashiest thing I’ve ever seen.

          Despite the fact that my dad is a computer programmer, in all other areas of life he’s almost completely illogical πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ. And my mum is a total lost cause πŸ˜†.

          So yeah, totally have to agree. The bar for being called ‘intelligent’ by most people is worryingly small. The kinds of things you have to say/do/think to be called intelligent are shockingly basic. You can only look upwards and aspire to learn from people you view as even more intelligent, to stay sane. It’s definitely very obvious why the history of humanity is so fucked up!

  11. I was aware that people had jumped or fallen to escape the flames. It was in the news coverage here. I find it baffling that anybody who was not in those buildings could be critical of those who must have been through a terrifying situation, worse than anybody’s nightmares.

    What about the people on UA Flight 93? Surely most people would view their actions as courageous.

  12. “There but for the grace of God” is a saying my mother often used when one or another of her children criticized or judged others. In other words, we don’t know the burdens other people are carrying and one day it could well be one of us, so, be kind, always.

          1. It is a maxim I have tried to live my life by. We cannot know what is happening in the hearts and minds of others, not even those closest to us so it is always good to be kind, always. πŸ™‚

  13. Those people were facing horrific conditions and likely the impulse to jump out of the way of flames/ deathly heat caused them to fall. Some people tried to hang out of the window but lost their grip.

    How this can be interpreted as cowardice is beyond me. Jumping had to have been horrifying in their last moments.

    I view being tortured by ones mind/ emotions the same way. To feel no way out of that situation is where treatment and prevention could’ve failed a person. Or where that person was surrounded by such indifference and cruelty that they killed themselves.

    It’s not cowardice but absolute anguish.

    Many many people have felt suicidal at some point in their life. We should stop laying blame and start asking why.

  14. It still sends chills to think about it now, but it doesn’t seem like 19 years ago to me. It’s scary how quickly time goes but it really is one of those poignant episodic memories. I can remember my dad picking me up from school; he had the radio on and he was so sombre, saying that something that happened but they don’t really know what’s going on, and we tried to listen for more details but we couldn’t get our heads around how or why. I remember sitting down to look at the news all evening as more details came through. The shock reverberated here in the UK but it still gets to me just thinking of what those people went through, both in the sky and in the buildings. It’s fucking awful. I can’t imagine 10 seconds falling like that either, that’s a hell of a long time for something like that. That photo… my god.

    You’ve done a brilliant job writing this up, Ashley.xx

    1. Thanks! Most atrocities don’t get captured on video the way this one did, and it definitely adds an extra chill factor to see those two giant deathtraps.

  15. It’s for reasons like this that I dislike religion. Who are these people, ready to “judge” others at any or every given moment? Yes, it makes me angry too. For the record, I believe I’d have jumped.

  16. Interesting piece, thank you for sharing. Not one of us can truly know or understand what was going through their minds at the time, we can only surmise. For those who judge and condemn those poor souls, shame on them.

    1. No one who hasn’t been through the valley of the shadow of death has the right to condemn people’s choices in the face of death. Compassion and empathy will surmise.

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