The next day, the New York Times published a photograph of a man falling from the North Tower; he became known as “The Falling Man”. The photo’s caption read; “A person falls headfirst after jumping from the north tower of the World Trade Centre. It was a horrific sight that was repeated in the moments after the planes struck the towers.” It appeared only once in the Times because of the criticism and anger which emerged following its publication.
The photograph was taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, of a man falling at 9:41:15am during the attacks. The subject of the image was one of the people trapped on the upper floors of the skyscraper who either fell searching for safety or jumped to escape the fire and smoke. At least 200 people fell or jumped to their deaths that day; officials could not recover or identify the bodies of those forced out of the buildings prior to the collapse of the towers. Officially, all deaths in the attacks – except those of the hijackers – were ruled to be homicides due to blunt trauma. The New York City medical examiner’s office said it does not classify the people who fell to their deaths on September 11 as “jumpers”; “A ‘jumper’ is somebody who goes to the office in the morning knowing that they will commit suicide… These people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out.”
The photograph gives the impression that the man is falling straight down. A series of photographs were taken of his fall and showed him to be tumbling through the air. The photographer has noted that, in at least two cases, newspaper stories commenting on the image have attracted a barrage of criticism from readers who found the image “disturbing”. Regarding the social and cultural significance of The Falling Man, the theologian Mark D Thompson of Moore Theological College said that; “perhaps the most powerful image of despair at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not found in art, or literature, or even popular music. It is found in a single photograph.”
The identity of the subject in the photograph has never been officially confirmed. The fact that so many people were trapped in the tower has made identifying the man in the 12 photos difficult. The Globe and Mail reporter Peter Cheney suggested the man may have been Norberto Hernandez, based on his research, but, when Hernandez’ family closely examined the entire photo sequence, they did not feel that it was him. Three other families claimed the man as a relative, but careful analysis of the photo confirmed the claims to be incorrect.
Michael Lomonaco, the chef at Windows on the World, suggested that the man was Jonathan Briley, a 43-year-old employee of the North Tower restaurant. Briley was initially identified by his brother, Timothy. Lomonaco was able to identify Briley by his clothes and body-type. In one of the pictures, The Falling Man’s clothes were blown open, revealing an orange undershirt similar to the shirt that Briley wore to work almost every day. His older sister, Gwendolyn, originally helped in identifying The Falling Man. She told reporters of The Sunday Mirror; “When I first looked at the picture… and I saw it was a man – tall, slim – I said, ‘If I didn’t know any better that could be Jonathan’.”
“The Falling Man” is also the title of an article about the photograph by Tom Junod that was published in the September 2003 issue of Esquire magazine. The article was adapted as a documentary film by the same name. The article and film also reveal “The Falling Man” may have been Jonathan Briley; known to have worked on the 106th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Centre. He either fell accidentally from the restaurant on that floor while searching for fresh air and safety, or decided to jump.
What struck us about the documentary we were watching was that nobody wanted “The Falling Man” to be their relative. It was like everyone was disowning him because of the stigma that everyone would know he had jumped thus committed suicide. The deeply religious family of Norberto Hernandez – the man who was originally thought to have been the subject of the photograph – refused point blank to even consider that it was him because suicide is a sin in their eyes.
Surely no one, even using their wildest imagination, could think that someone given the choice of dying an agonising death in a fire or jumping and hoping against hope that they survive would have committed suicide if they chose the latter. “The Falling Man” was most likely Jonathan Briley, but there is no shame in anything he did that day even if it turned out he had jumped. In fact, listening to all the facts, Jonathan was an asthmatic and would have known he was in danger when smoke began to pour into the restaurant. He may have jumped or he may have climbed out of a window trying to find fresh air to breath and fallen.
Whatever he did, and we will never know what that was, he did nothing to be ashamed of or indeed for his family to feel shame in his actions. There can be no blame placed on his shoulders – any blame for that day lies elsewhere!