Falling to Heaven

The “9/11: The Falling Man” documentary made in 2006 by American filmmaker Henry Singer follows the stories of relatives, spouses and friends of those trapped in the World Trade Center. Over a million people walked through its doors every day, working on 110 different floors.

A few people spoke about their last conversation with loved ones in the towers, each describing their last words on the phone or the last text messages. Jack Gentul describes how a friend alerted him of the plane crash since he knew Jack’s wife, Elaine, worked there. “She said to me, ‘I’m scared.’ She wasn’t a person who got scared. I said, ‘Call me when you get down,’ and when I hung up the phone, I was horrified. I hope she succumbed to the smoke, but it seems unlikely. Everything around you is happening. To be out of the smoke and heat and to be out in the air, it must have felt like flying.”

A section of the documentary was dedicated to Richard Drew’s experience being on call as Associated Press photojournalist at a New York Fashion Week event. “I was standing between a police officer and a woman EMS worker, and all of a sudden the woman says, ‘oh, look,’ and pointed up, and  all three of us looked up, and people started coming down from the World Trade Center. You could always hear them hitting the ground like a sack of cement,” Drew says. “I didn’t recognize the objects I was seeing as people.”

From the discovery of The Falling Man photo, Tom Junod, reporter for Esquire magazine, explains why they publish the photo in their newspaper, also inspiring himself to hunt for the identity of The Falling man. He said there are photos in history that are flash points and that certain, graphic photos tell stories. “It’s going to be heavy, and it’s going to be angry, and a lot of it is going to be misdirected anger,” Junod says. “They had a choice in the  manner they were going to die, we had to capture the enormity of this event.”

After hundreds of call boards for missing family in his search for The Falling Man, Tom Junod came across the familiar face of Norberto Hernandez, but the family angrily denied it, saying he wouldn’t commit suicide as that’s against their beliefs and his soul would go to hell. “We were not the most religious family, but we did have our beliefs,” said Hernandez’s daughter.

On the other side, Richard Pecorella needed to know what happened to his wife, Karen. He searched through the pictures of the fallers until he found someone who strongly resembled his wife. “Not knowing how I lost her is more painful. If she jumped, she jumped.”

And after more searching through Drew’s photos, the realization that The Falling Man was wearing an orange shirt under his shirt, something Norberto Hernandez wasn’t wearing that day. Michael Lomonaco then agreed to look at the pictures, and he discovered that it was Jonathan Briley, the audio-visual technician at Windows on the World. “It offered me no comfort to think, ‘oh, that’s Jonathan. He was somebody that I would have like to have known forever.”

Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, Jonathan’s sister said, “He was one of these special people who could spread himself across the family, and we all got out piece of Jonathan. Down in the morgue, Timothy confirmed the identity of Jonathan Briley saying, “I will know my brother’s hands and feet,” and he took one of his brother’s shoes and kept it.

Gwendolyn said, “Did that person have so much faith that he knew that God would catch him, or was he so afraid to experience the end up there?” The identity of The Falling Man coming to light brought about the thought that we are not trying to find out who he is, but who we are by watching that. He represented the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Drew won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1993 for its coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign. Drew has worked for Associated Press for 32 years before taking the iconic photo of The Falling Man.

Richard Drew said, “We have to take pictures of it, and I guess for me the camera is a filter between what’s going on and what I do. I’m just there and I’m recording history.” Drew said documenting a tragedy like 9/11 was part of the job of being a photojournalist.

That day, Drew was covering a New York Fashion Week event when he heard about the first plant hitting the World Trade Center. His editor called and said, “Bag the fashion show, you have to go.” When he got on the scene, both of the twin towers were on fire.

“Bodies were falling,” Drew recalls, “so instinctively, I picked up my camera and started taking pictures. It’s what I do. And to hear the sound, they would fall to a certain point, and then I couldn’t see them anymore because my view was obstructed from where I was. You could always hear them hitting the ground like a sack of cement.”

After sorting through the horrendous photos, he found The Falling Man. Tom Junod from Esquire magazine described it as, “sort of like an arrow dissecting the buildings from the North Tower to the South Tower.” Richard Drew said, “I didn’t recognize the objects I was seeing as people.”

If I were in Drew’s shoes, I would publish this photo, just as I would publish the fireball photo of the twin towers. It is a real event that happened like any other that happened that day, and some people would like to forget that.

Life should not be shamed, so then who are we to hide someone’s death? “They should not be excluded from the consecrated ground of American soil because they died in a way that makes us uncomfortable.” The stigma around suicide is so strong, so to deny this picture would be denying the death, and life, of a person who also represents almost all of those who have jumped the day of 9/11.

Also looking at this photo as an art piece, the photo of the Falling Man does exactly as art should: makes one question their fuller humanity. People jumped from the twin towers as tragic, and as that might be, they each picked their own poison. Burning or jumping, which is the lesser of two evils? And it makes you wonder.

Which evil would you choose?

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