The Falling Man
By Tom Junod
September 2003, Volume 140, Issue 3
Photograph by Richard Drew
Do you remember this photograph?
In the United States, people have taken pains to banish it from the
record of September 11, 2001. The story behind it, though, and the
search for the man pictured in it, are our most intimate connection to
the horror of that day.
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. His
arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent
at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is
billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on
his feet. In all the other pictures, the people who did what he
didówho jumpedóappear to be struggling against horrific discrepancies
of scale. They are made puny by the backdrop of the towers, which loom
like colossi, and then by the event itself. Some of them are
shirtless; their shoes fly off as they flail and fall; they look
confused, as though trying to swim down the side of a mountain. The
man in the picture, by contrast, is perfectly vertical, and so is in
accord with the lines of the buildings behind him. He splits them,
bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the
North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to
the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in
the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars
shining in the sun. Some people who look at the picture see stoicism,
willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something
elseósomething discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is
something almost rebellious in the man's posture, as though once faced
with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as
though he were a missile, a spear, bent on attaining his own end. He
is, fifteen seconds past 9:41 a.m. EST, the moment the picture is
taken, in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of
thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at
upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down. In the picture,
he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps
dropping until he disappears.
THE PHOTOGRAPHER is no stranger to history; he knows it is something
that happens later. In the actual moment history is made, it is
usually made in terror and confusion, and so it is up to people like
himópaid witnessesóto have the presence of mind to attend to its
manufacture. The photographer has that presence of mind and has had it
since he was a young man. When he was twenty-one years old, he was
standing right behind Bobby Kennedy when Bobby Kennedy was shot in the
head. His jacket was spattered with Kennedy's blood, but he jumped on
a table and shot pictures of Kennedy's open and ebbing eyes, and then
of Ethel Kennedy crouching over her husband and begging
photographersóbegging himónot to take pictures.
Richard Drew has never done that. Although he has preserved the jacket
patterned with Kennedy's blood, he has never not taken a picture,
never averted his eye. He works for the Associated Press. He is a
journalist. It is not up to him to reject the images that fill his
frame, because one never knows when history is made until one makes
it. It is not even up to him to distinguish if a body is alive or
dead, because the camera makes no such distinctions, and he is in the
business of shooting bodies, as all photographers are, unless they are
Ansel Adams. Indeed, he was shooting bodies on the morning of
September 11, 2001. On assignment for the AP, he was shooting a
maternity fashion show in Bryant Park, notable, he says, "because it
featured actual pregnant models." He was fifty-four years old. He wore
glasses. He was sparse in the scalp, gray in the beard, hard in the
head. In a lifetime of taking pictures, he has found a way to be both
mild-mannered and brusque, patient and very, very quick. He was doing
what he always does at fashion showsó"staking out real estate"ówhen a
CNN cameraman with an earpiece said that a plane had crashed into the
North Tower, and Drew's editor rang his cell phone. He packed his
equipment into a bag and gambled on taking the subway downtown.
Although it was still running, he was the only one on it. He got out
at the Chambers Street station and saw that both towers had been
turned into smokestacks. Staking out his real estate, he walked west,
to where ambulances were gathering, because rescue workers "usually
won't throw you out." Then he heard people gasping. People on the
ground were gasping because people in the building were jumping. He
started shooting pictures through a 200mm lens. He was standing
between a cop and an emergency technician, and each time one of them
cried, "There goes another," his camera found a falling body and
followed it down for a nine- or twelve-shot sequence. He shot ten or
fifteen of them before he heard the rumbling of the South Tower and
witnessed, through the winnowing exclusivity of his lens, its
collapse. He was engulfed in a mobile ruin, but he grabbed a mask from
an ambulance and photographed the top of the North Tower "exploding
like a mushroom" and raining debris. He discovered that there is such
a thing as being too close, and, deciding that he had fulfilled his
professional obligations, Richard Drew joined the throng of ashen
humanity heading north, walking until he reached his office at
There was no terror or confusion at the Associated Press. There was,
instead, that feeling of history being manufactured; although the
office was as crowded as he'd ever seen it, there was, instead, "the
wonderful calm that comes into play when people are really doing their
jobs." So Drew did his: He inserted the disc from his digital camera
into his laptop and recognized, instantly, what only his camera had
seenósomething iconic in the extended annihilation of a falling man.
He didn't look at any of the other pictures in the sequence; he didn't
have to. "You learn in photo editing to look for the frame," he says.
"You have to recognize it. That picture just jumped off the screen
because of its verticality and symmetry. It just had that look." He
sent the image to the AP's server. The next morning, it appeared on
page seven of The New York Times. It appeared in hundreds of
newspapers, all over the country, all over the world. The man inside
the frameóthe Falling Manówas not identified.
THEY BEGAN JUMPING NOT LONG after the first plane hit the North Tower,
not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower
fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later,
through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke
and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors
collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died.
They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from
all floors above and around the building's fatal wound. They jumped
from the offices of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance company; from the
offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company; from Windows
on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floorsóthe top.
For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one
after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each
individual required the sight of another individual jumping before
mustering the courage to jump himself or herself. One photograph,
taken at a distance, shows people jumping in perfect sequence, like
parachutists, forming an arc composed of three plummeting people,
evenly spaced. Indeed, there were reports that some tried parachuting,
before the force generated by their fall ripped the drapes, the
tablecloths, the desperately gathered fabric, from their hands. They
were all, obviously, very much alive on their way down, and their way
down lasted an approximate count of ten seconds. They were all,
obviously, not just killed when they landed but destroyed, in body
though not, one prays, in soul. One hit a fireman on the ground and
killed him; the fireman's body was anointed by Father Mychal Judge,
whose own death, shortly thereafter, was embraced as an example of
martyrdom after the photographóthe redemptive tableauóof firefighters
carrying his body from the rubble made its way around the world.
From the beginning, the spectacle of doomed people jumping from the
upper floors of the World Trade Center resisted redemption. They were
called "jumpers" or "the jumpers," as though they represented a new
lemminglike class. The trial that hundreds endured in the building and
then in the air became its own kind of trial for the thousands
watching them from the ground. No one ever got used to it; no one who
saw it wished to see it again, although, of course, many saw it again.
Each jumper, no matter how many there were, brought fresh horror,
elicited shock, tested the spirit, struck a lasting blow. Those
tumbling through the air remained, by all accounts, eerily silent;
those on the ground screamed. It was the sight of the jumpers that
prompted Rudy Giuliani to say to his police commissioner, "We're in
uncharted waters now." It was the sight of the jumpers that prompted a
woman to wail, "God! Save their souls! They're jumping! Oh, please
God! Save their souls!" And it was, at last, the sight of the jumpers
that provided the corrective to those who insisted on saying that what
they were witnessing was "like a movie," for this was an ending as
unimaginable as it was unbearable: Americans responding to the worst
terrorist attack in the history of the world with acts of heroism,
with acts of sacrifice, with acts of generosity, with acts of
martyrdom, and, by terrible necessity, with one prolonged act ofóif
these words can be applied to mass murderómass suicide.
IN MOST AMERICAN NEWSPAPERS, the photograph that Richard Drew took of
the Falling Man ran once and never again. Papers all over the country,
from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to
The Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that
they exploited a man's death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his
privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography. Most letters of
complaint stated the obvious: that someone seeing the picture had to
know who it was. Still, even as Drew's photograph became at once
iconic and impermissible, its subject remained unnamed. An editor at
the Toronto Globe and Mail assigned a reporter named Peter Cheney to
solve the mystery. Cheney at first despaired of his task; the entire
city, after all, was wallpapered with Kinkoed flyers advertising the
faces of the missing and the lost and the dead. Then he applied
himself, sending the digital photograph to a shop that clarified and
enhanced it. Now information emerged: It appeared to him that the man
was most likely not black but dark-skinned, probably Latino. He wore a
goatee. And the white shirt billowing from his black pants was not a
shirt but rather appeared to be a tunic of some sort, the kind of
jacket a restaurant worker wears. Windows on the World, the restaurant
at the top of the North Tower, lost seventy-nine of its employees on
September 11, as well as ninety-one of its patrons. It was likely that
the Falling Man numbered among them. But which one was he? Over
dinner, Cheney spent an evening discussing this question with friends,
then said goodnight and walked through Times Square. It was after
midnight, eight days after the attacks. The missing posters were still
everywhere, but Cheney was able to focus on one that seemed to present
itself to himóa poster portraying a man who worked at Windows as a
pastry chef, who was dressed in a white tunic, who wore a goatee, who
was Latino. His name was Norberto Hernandez. He lived in Queens.
Cheney took the enhanced print of the Richard Drew photograph to the
family, in particular to Norberto Hernandez's brother Tino and sister
Milagros. They said yes, that was Norberto. Milagros had watched
footage of the people jumping on that terrible morning, before the
television stations stopped showing it. She had seen one of the
jumpers distinguished by the grace of his fallóby his resemblance to
an Olympic diveróand surmised that he had to be her brother. Now she
saw, and she knew. All that remained was for Peter Cheney to confirm
the identification with Norberto's wife and his three daughters. They
did not want to talk to him, especially after Norberto's remains were
found and identified by the stamp of his DNAóa torso, an arm. So he
went to the funeral. He brought his print of Drew's photograph with
him and showed it to Jacqueline Hernandez, the oldest of Norberto's
three daughters. She looked briefly at the picture, then at Cheney,
and ordered him to leave.
What Cheney remembers her saying, in her anger, in her offended grief:
"That piece of shit is not my father."
THE RESISTANCE TO THE IMAGEóto the imagesóstarted early, started
immediately, started on the ground. A mother whispering to her
distraught child a consoling lie: "Maybe they're just birds, honey."
Bill Feehan, second in command at the fire department, chasing a
bystander who was panning the jumpers with his video camera, demanding
that he turn it off, bellowing, "Don't you have any human decency?"
before dying himself when the building came down. In the most
photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world, the
images of people jumping were the only images that became, by
consensus, tabooóthe only images from which Americans were proud to
avert their eyes. All over the world, people saw the human stream
debouch from the top of the North Tower, but here in the United
States, we saw these images only until the networks decided not to
allow such a harrowing view, out of respect for the families of those
so publicly dying. At CNN, the footage was shown live, before people
working in the newsroom knew what was happening; then, after what
Walter Isaacson, who was then chairman of the network's news bureau,
calls "agonized discussions" with the "standards guy," it was shown
only if people in it were blurred and unidentifiable; then it was not
shown at all.
And so it went. In 9/11, the documentary extracted from videotape shot
by French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the filmmakers included a
sonic sampling of the booming, rattling explosions the jumpers made
upon impact but edited out the most disturbing thing about the sounds:
the sheer frequency with which they occurred. In Rudy, the docudrama
starring James Woods in the role of Mayor Giuliani, archival footage
of the jumpers was first included, then cut out. In Here Is New York,
an extensive exhibition of 9/11 images culled from the work of
photographers both amateur and professional, there was, in the section
titled "Victims," but one picture of the jumpers, taken at a
respectful distance; attached to it, on the Here Is New York Web site,
a visitor offers this commentary: "This image is what made me glad for
censuring [sic] in the endless pursuant media coverage." More and
more, the jumpersóand their imagesówere relegated to the Internet
underbelly, where they became the provenance of the shock sites that
also traffic in the autopsy photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and the
videotape of Daniel Pearl's execution, and where it is impossible to
look at them without attendant feelings of shame and guilt. In a
nation of voyeurs, the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of
our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though
the jumpers' experience, instead of being central to the horror, was
tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.
It was no sideshow. The two most reputable estimates of the number of
people who jumped to their deaths were prepared by The New York Times
and USA Today. They differed dramatically. The Times, admittedly
conservative, decided to count only what its reporters actually saw in
the footage they collected, and it arrived at a figure of fifty. USA
Today, whose editors used eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence in
addition to what they found on video, came to the conclusion that at
least two hundred people died by jumpingóa count that the newspaper
said authorities did not dispute. Both are intolerable estimates of
human loss, but if the number provided by USA Today is accurate, then
between 7 and 8 percent of those who died in New York City on
September 11, 2001, died by jumping out of the buildings; it means
that if we consider only the North Tower, where the vast majority of
jumpers came from, the ratio is more like one in six.
And yet if one calls the New York Medical Examiner's Office to learn
its own estimate of how many people might have jumped, one does not
get an answer but an admonition: "We don't like to say they jumped.
They didn't jump. Nobody jumped. They were forced out, or blown out."
And if one Googles the words "how many jumped on 9/11," one falls into
some blogger's trap, slugged "Go Away, No Jumpers Here," where the
bait is one's own need to know: "I've got at least three entries in my
referrer logs that show someone is doing a search on Google for 'how
many people jumped from WTC.' My September 11 post had made mention of
that terrible occurance [sic], so now any pervert looking for that
will get my site's URL. I'm disgusted. I tried, but cannot find any
reason someone would want to know something like that. . . . Whatever.
If that's why you're hereóyou're busted. Now go away."
ERIC FISCHL DID NOT GO AWAY. Neither did he turn away or avert his
eyes. A year before September 11, he had taken photographs of a model
tumbling around on the floor of a studio. He had thought of using the
photographs as the basis of a sculpture. Now, though, he had lost a
friend who had been trapped on the 106th floor of the North Tower.
Now, as he worked on his sculpture, he sought to express the extremity
of his feelings by making a monument to what he calls the "extremity
of choice" faced by the people who jumped. He worked nine months on
the larger-than-life bronze he called Tumbling Woman, and as he
transformed a woman tumbling on the floor into a woman tumbling
through eternity, he succeeded in transfiguring the very local horror
of the jumpers into something universalóin redeeming an image many
regarded as irredeemable. Indeed, Tumbling Woman was perhaps the
redemptive image of 9/11óand yet it was not merely resisted; it was
rejected. The day after Tumbling Woman was exhibited in New York's
Rockefeller Center, Andrea Peyser of the New York Post denounced it in
a column titled "Shameful Art Attack," in which she argued that Fischl
had no right to ambush grieving New Yorkers with the very distillation
of their own sadness . . . in which she essentially argued the right
to look away. Because it was based on a model rolling on the floor,
the statue was treated as an evocation of impactóas a portrayal of
literal, rather than figurative, violence.
"I was trying to say something about the way we all feel," Fischl
says, "but people thought I was trying to say something about the way
they feelóthat I was trying to take away something only they
possessed. They thought that I was trying to say something about the
people they lost. 'That image is not my father. You don't even know my
father. How dare you try telling me how I feel about my father?' "
Fischl wound up apologizingó"I was ashamed to have added to anybody's
pain"óbut it didn't matter.
Jerry Speyer, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art who runs
Rockefeller Center, ended the exhibition of Tumbling Woman after a
week. "I pleaded with him not to do it," Fischl says. "I thought that
if we could wait it out, other voices would pipe up and carry the day.
He said, 'You don't understand. I'm getting bomb threats.' I said,
'People who just lost loved ones to terrorism are not going to bomb
somebody.' He said, 'I can't take that chance.' "
PHOTOGRAPHS LIE. Even great photographs. Especially great photographs.
The Falling Man in Richard Drew's picture fell in the manner suggested
by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept
falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a
fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center,
like a spike. In truth, however, the Falling Man fell with neither the
precision of an arrow nor the grace of an Olympic diver. He fell like
everyone else, like all the other jumpersótrying to hold on to the
life he was leaving, which is to say that he fell desperately,
inelegantly. In Drew's famous photograph, his humanity is in accord
with the lines of the buildings. In the rest of the sequenceóthe
eleven outtakesóhis humanity stands apart. He is not augmented by
aesthetics; he is merely human, and his humanity, startled and in some
cases horizontal, obliterates everything else in the frame.
In the complete sequence of photographs, truth is subordinate to the
facts that emerge slowly, pitilessly, frame by frame. In the sequence,
the Falling Man shows his face to the camera in the two frames before
the published one, and after that there is an unveiling, nearly an
unpeeling, as the force generated by the fall rips the white jacket
off his back. The facts that emerge from the entire sequence suggest
that the Toronto reporter, Peter Cheney, got some things right in his
effort to solve the mystery presented by Drew's published photo. The
Falling Man has a dark cast to his skin and wears a goatee. He is
probably a food-service worker. He seems lanky, with the length and
narrowness of his faceólike that of a medieval Christópossibly
accentuated by the push of the wind and the pull of gravity. But
seventy-nine people died on the morning of September 11 after going to
work at Windows on the World. Another twenty-one died while in the
employ of Forte Food, a catering service that fed the traders at
Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of the dead were Latino, or light-skinned
black men, or Indian, or Arab. Many had dark hair cut short. Many had
mustaches and goatees. Indeed, to anyone trying to figure out the
identity of the Falling Man, the few salient characteristics that can
be discerned in the original series of photographs raise as many
possibilities as they exclude. There is, however, one fact that is
decisive. Whoever the Falling Man may be, he was wearing a
bright-orange shirt under his white top. It is the one inarguable fact
that the brute force of the fall reveals. No one can know if the tunic
or shirt, open at the back, is being pulled away from him, or if the
fall is simply tearing the white fabric to pieces. But anyone can see
he is wearing an orange shirt. If they saw these pictures, members of
his family would be able to see that he is wearing an orange shirt.
They might even be able to remember if he owned an orange shirt, if he
was the kind of guy who would own an orange shirt, if he wore an
orange shirt to work that morning. Surely they would; surely someone
would remember what he was wearing when he went to work on the last
morning of his life. . . .
But now the Falling Man is falling through more than the blank blue
sky. He is falling through the vast spaces of memory and picking up
NEIL LEVIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the Port Authority of New York and
New Jersey, had breakfast at Windows on the World, on the 106th floor
of the World Trade Center's North Tower, on the morning of September
11. He never came home. His wife, Christy Ferer, won't talk about any
of the particulars of his death. She works for New York mayor Mike
Bloomberg as the liaison between the mayor's office and the 9/11
families and has poured the energy aroused by her grief into her work,
which, before the first anniversary of the attack, called for her to
visit television executives and ask them not to use the most
disturbing footageóincluding the footage of the jumpersóin their
memorial broadcasts. She is a close friend of Eric Fischl's, as was
her husband, so when the artist asked, she agreed to take a look at
Tumbling Woman. It, in her words, "hit me in the gut," but she felt
that Fischl had the right to create and exhibit it. Now she's come to
the conclusion that the controversy may have been largely a matter of
timing. Maybe it was just too soon to show something like that. After
all, not long before her husband died, she traveled with him to
Auschwitz, where piles of confiscated eyeglasses and extracted tooth
fillings are on exhibit. "They can show that now," she says. "But that
was a long time ago. They couldn't show things like that then. . . ."
In fact, they did, at least in photographic form, and the pictures
that came out of the death camps of Europe were treated as essential
acts of witness, without particular regard to the sensitivities of
those who appeared in them or the surviving families of the dead. They
were shown, as Richard Drew's photographs of the freshly assassinated
Robert Kennedy were shown. They were shown, as the photographs of
Ethel Kennedy pleading with photographers not to take photographs were
shown. They were shown as the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl
running naked after a napalm attack was shown. They were shown as the
photograph of Father Mychal Judge, graphically and unmistakably dead,
was shown, and accepted as a kind of testament. They were shown as
everything is shown, for, like the lens of a camera, history is a
force that does not discriminate. What distinguishes the pictures of
the jumpers from the pictures that have come before is that weówe
Americansóare being asked to discriminate on their behalf. What
distinguishes them, historically, is that we, as patriotic Americans,
have agreed not to look at them. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of
people died by leaping from a burning building, and we have somehow
taken it upon ourselves to deem their deaths unworthy of
witnessóbecause we have somehow deemed the act of witness, in this one
regard, unworthy of us.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ never saw the photo the reporter carried under his
arm at her father's funeral. Neither did her mother, Eulogia. Her
sister Jacqueline did, and her outrage assured that the reporter
leftówas forcibly evictedóbefore he did any more damage. But the
picture has followed Catherine and Eulogia and the entire Hernandez
family. There was nothing more important to Norberto Hernandez than
family. His motto: "Together Forever." But the Hernandezes are not
together anymore. The picture split them. Those who knew, right away,
that the picture was not Norbertoóhis wife and his daughtersóhave
become estranged from those who pondered the possibility that it was
him for the benefit of a reporter's notepad. With Norberto alive, the
extended family all lived in the same neighborhood in Queens. Now
Eulogia and her daughters have moved to a house on Long Island because
Tatianaówho is now sixteen and who bears a resemblance to Norberto
Hernandez: the wide face, the dark brows, the thick dark lips, thinly
smilingókept seeing visions of her father in the house and kept
hearing the whispered suggestions that he died by jumping out a
He could not have died by jumping out a window.
All over the world, people who read Peter Cheney's story believe that
Norberto died by jumping out a window. People have written poems about
Norberto jumping out a window. People have called the Hernandezes with
offers of moneyóeither charity or payment for interviewsóbecause they
read about Norberto jumping out a window. But he couldn't have jumped
out a window, his family knows, because he wouldn't have jumped out a
window: not Papi. "He was trying to come home," Catherine says one
morning, in a living room primarily decorated with framed photographs
of her father. "He was trying to come home to us, and he knew he
wasn't going to make it by jumping out a window." She is a lovely,
dark-skinned, brown-eyed girl, twenty-two years old, dressed in a
T-shirt and sweats and sandals. She is sitting on a couch next to her
mother, who is caramel-colored, with coppery hair tied close to her
scalp, and who is wearing a cotton dress checked with the color of the
sky. Eulogia speaks half the time in determined English, and then,
when she gets frustrated with the rate of revelation, pours rapid-fire
Spanish into the ear of her daughter, who translates. "My mother says
she knows that when he died, he was thinking about us. She says that
she could see him thinking about us. I know that sounds strange, but
she knew him. They were together since they were fifteen." The
Norberto Hernandez Eulogia knew would not have been deterred by smoke
or by fire in his effort to come home to her. The Norberto Hernandez
she knew would have endured any pain before he jumped out of a window.
When the Norberto Hernandez she knew died, his eyes were fixed on what
he saw in his heartóthe faces of his wife and his daughtersóand not on
the terrible beauty of an empty sky.
How well did she know him? "I dressed him," Eulogia says in English, a
smile appearing on her face at the same time as a shiny coat of tears.
"Every morning. That morning, I remember. He wore Old Navy underwear.
Green. He wore black socks. He wore blue pants: jeans. He wore a Casio
watch. He wore an Old Navy shirt. Blue. With checks." What did he wear
after she drove him, as she always did, to the subway station and
watched him wave to her as he disappeared down the stairs? "He changed
clothes at the restaurant," says Catherine, who worked with her father
at Windows on the World. "He was a pastry chef, so he wore white
pants, or chef's pantsóyou know, black-and-white check. He wore a
white jacket. Under that, he had to wear a white T-shirt." What about
an orange shirt? "No," Eulogia says. "My husband did not have an
There are pictures. There are pictures of the Falling Man as he fell.
Do they want to see them? Catherine says no, on her mother's
behalfó"My mother should not see"óbut then, when she steps outside and
sits down on the steps of the front porch, she says, "Pleaseóshow me.
Hurry. Before my mother comes." When she sees the twelve-frame
sequence, she lets out a gasping, muted call for her mother, but
Eulogia is already over her shoulder, reaching for the pictures. She
looks at them one after another, and then her face fixes itself into
an expression of triumph and scorn. "That is not my husband," she
says, handing the photographs back. "You see? Only I know Norberto."
She reaches for the photographs again, and then, after studying them,
shakes her head with a vehement finality. "The man in this picture is
a black man." She asks for copies of the pictures so that she can show
them to the people who believed that Norberto jumped out a window,
while Catherine sits on the step with her palm spread over her heart.
"They said my father was going to hell because he jumped," she says.
"On the Internet. They said my father was taken to hell with the
devil. I don't know what I would have done if it was him. I would have
had a nervous breakdown, I guess. They would have found me in a mental
ward somewhere. . . ."
Her mother is standing at the front door, about to go back inside her
house. Her face has already lost its belligerent pride and has turned
once again into a mask of composed, almost wistful sadness. "Please,"
she says as she closes the door in a stain of morning sunlight.
"Please clear my husband's name."
A PHONE RINGS in Connecticut. A woman answers. A man on the other end
is looking to identify a photo that ran in The New York Times on
September 12, 2001. "Tell me what the photo looks like," she says.
It's a famous picture, the man saysóthe famous picture of a man
falling. "Is it the one called 'Swan Dive' on Rotten.com?" the woman
asks. It may be, the man says. "Yes, that might have been my son," the
She lost both her sons on September 11. They worked together at Cantor
Fitzgerald. They worked on the equities desk. They worked
back-to-back. No, the man on the phone says, the man in the photograph
is probably a food-service worker. He's wearing a white jacket. He's
upside down. "Then that's not my son," she says. "My son was wearing a
dark shirt and khaki pants."
She knows what he was wearing because of her determination to know
what happened to her sons on that dayóbecause of her determination to
look and to see. She did not start with that determination. She
stopped reading the newspaper after September 11, stopped watching TV.
Then, on New Year's Eve, she picked up a copy of The New York Times
and saw, in a year-end review, a picture of Cantor Fitzgerald
employees crowding the edge of the cliff formed by a dying building.
In the postureóthe attitudeóof one of them, she thought she recognized
the habits of her son. So she called the photographer and asked him to
enlarge and clarify the picture. Demanded that he do it. And then she
knew, or knew as much as it was possible to know. Both of her sons
were in the picture. One was standing in the window, almost brazenly.
The other was sitting inside. She does not need to say what may have
"The thing I hold was that both of my sons were together," she says,
her instantaneous tears lifting her voice an octave. "But I sometimes
wonder how long they knew. They're puzzled, they're uncertain, they're
scaredóbut when did they know? When did the moment come when they lost
hope? Maybe it came so quick. . . ."
The man on the phone does not ask if she thinks her sons jumped. He
does not have it in him, and anyway, she has given him an answer.
The Hernandezes looked at the decision to jump as a betrayal of
loveóas something Norberto was being accused of. The woman in
Connecticut looks at the decision to jump as a loss of hopeóas an
absence that we, the living, now have to live with. She chooses to
live with it by looking, by seeing, by trying to knowóby making an act
of private witness. She could have chosen to keep her eyes closed. And
so now the man on the phone asks the question that he called to ask in
the first place: Did she make the right choice?
"I made the only choice I could have made," the woman answers. "I
could never have made the choice not to know."
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ thought she knew who the Falling Man was as soon
as she saw the series of pictures, but she wouldn't say his name. "He
had a sister who was with him that morning," she said, "and he told
his mother that he would take care of her. He would never have left
her alone by jumping." She did say, however, that the man was Indian,
so it was easy to figure out that his name was Sean Singh. But Sean
was too small to be the Falling Man. He was clean-shaven. He worked at
Windows on the World in the audiovisual department, so he probably
would have been wearing a shirt and tie instead of a white chef's
coat. None of the former Windows employees who were interviewed
believe the Falling Man looks anything like Sean Singh.
Besides, he had a sister. He never would have left her alone.
A manager at Windows looked at the pictures once and said the Falling
Man was Wilder Gomez. Then a few days later he studied them closely
and changed his mind. Wrong hair. Wrong clothes. Wrong body type. It
was the same with Charlie Mauro. It was the same with Junior Jimenez.
Junior worked in the kitchen and would have been wearing checked
pants. Charlie worked in purchasing and had no cause to wear a white
jacket. Besides, Charlie was a very large man. The Falling Man appears
fairly stout in Richard Drew's published photo but almost elongated in
the rest of the sequence.
The rest of the kitchen workers were, like Norberto Hernandez,
eliminated from consideration by their outfits. The banquet servers
may have been wearing white and black, but no one remembered any
banquet server who looked anything like the Falling Man.
Forte Food was the other food-service company that lost people on
September 11, 2001. But all of its male employees worked in the
kitchen, which means that they wore either checked or white pants. And
nobody would have been allowed to wear an orange shirt under the white
But someone who used to work for Forte remembers a guy who used to
come around and get food for the Cantor executives. Black guy. Tall,
with a mustache and a goatee. Wore a chef's coat, open, with a loud
Nobody at Cantor remembers anyone like that.
Of course, the only way to find out the identity of the Falling Man is
to call the families of anyone who might be the Falling Man and ask
what they know about their son's or husband's or father's last day on
earth. Ask if he went to work wearing an orange shirt.
But should those calls be made? Should those questions be asked? Would
they only heap pain upon the already anguished? Would they be regarded
as an insult to the memory of the dead, the way the Hernandez family
regarded the imputation that Norberto Hernandez was the Falling Man?
Or would they be regarded as steps to some act of redemptive witness?
Jonathan Briley worked at Windows on the World. Some of his coworkers,
when they saw Richard Drew's photographs, thought he might be the
Falling Man. He was a light-skinned black man. He was over six five.
He was forty-three. He had a mustache and a goatee and close-cropped
hair. He had a wife named Hillary.
Jonathan Briley's father is a preacher, a man who has devoted his
whole life to serving the Lord. After September 11, he gathered his
family together to ask God to tell him where his son was. No: He
demanded it. He used these words: "Lord, I demand to know where my son
is." For three hours straight, he prayed in his deep voice, until he
spent the grace he had accumulated over a lifetime in the insistence
of his appeal.
The next day, the FBI called. They'd found his son's body. It was,
The preacher's youngest son, Timothy, went to identify his brother. He
recognized him by his shoes: He was wearing black high-tops. Timothy
removed one of them and took it home and put it in his garage, as a
kind of memorial.
Timothy knew all about the Falling Man. He is a cop in Mount Vernon,
New York, and in the week after his brother died, someone had left a
September 12 newspaper open in the locker room. He saw the photograph
of the Falling Man and, in anger, he refused to look at it again. But
he couldn't throw it away. Instead, he stuffed it in the bottom of his
locker, whereólike the black shoe in his garageóit became permanent.
Jonathan's sister Gwendolyn knew about the Falling Man, too. She saw
the picture the day it was published. She knew that Jonathan had
asthma, and in the smoke and the heat would have done anything just to
breathe. . . .
The both of them, Timothy and Gwendolyn, knew what Jonathan wore to
work on most days. He wore a white shirt and black pants, along with
the high-top black shoes. Timothy also knew what Jonathan sometimes
wore under his shirt: an orange T-shirt. Jonathan wore that orange
T-shirt everywhere. He wore that shirt all the time. He wore it so
often that Timothy used to make fun of him: When are you gonna get rid
of that orange T-shirt, Slim?
But when Timothy identified his brother's body, none of his clothes
were recognizable except the black shoes. And when Jonathan went to
work on the morning of September 11, 2001, he'd left early and kissed
his wife goodbye while she was still sleeping. She never saw the
clothes he was wearing. After she learned that he was dead, she packed
his clothes away and never inventoried what specific articles of
clothing might be missing.
Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn't
jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope.
Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to
come home to his family. Maybe he didn't jump at all, because no one
can jump into the arms of God.
Oh, no. You have to fall.
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 skyófalling 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 frameóthe Falling Manóbecame 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.
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