- Juliana Gragnani – @julianagragnani
- From BBC News Brazil in London
Death or death. On the morning of September 11, 2001, dozens of people had to choose between these two alternatives. With fire and smoke inside the buildings of the World Trade Center in New York, victims on the upper floors began to jump, losing their lives as they fell from up to 417 meters high.
The scene of people jumping from buildings attacked by two planes is one of the darkest and most sensitive aspects of the tragedy that turns 20 this Saturday (11/9). It was eternalized in images.
One of them, that of a man falling almost in a dive, upside down and his body parallel to the tracks of the Twin Towers, became iconic.
The day after the tragedy, several newspapers published the photo taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew. In the years that have passed, the image has been considered insensitive by some, too painful to behold. Others saw in her the terrible aesthetic of that leap to death.
This is the story of the iconic “The Falling Man” photo.
“It was an ordinary day in New York,” begins Richard Drew, now 74 years old.
A photographer since the age of 19, the experienced Drew, then 54, had just covered the US Open tennis tournament in Queens, New York. That Tuesday, September 11th, he would cover New York Fashion Week – more specifically, the first maternity fashion show, featuring real pregnant models. Drew watched the parade in Bryant Park, right in midtown Manhattan, alongside a CNN cameraman.
While they were talking, the CNN cameraman placed his hand on the electronic point that was in his ear. “There was an explosion at the World Trade Center,” he said. And then: “A plane hit the World Trade Center.”
Instantly Drew’s cell phone rang. It was his editor ordering him to run to the scene. Drew grabbed his camera and ran to Times Square. From there, he took the subway towards the Twin Towers.
When he emerged from the stairs below the ground, he saw an unforgettable image: the two destroyed towers, on fire. He started photographing people shocked by the chaos around them, the FBI already on the streets isolating the area, the sediment in the street.
“Then I realized that the smoke was blowing from west to east, and I went around to avoid it. I stood by the ambulances, between a first-aider and a policeman,” he says.
The rescuer was the first to notice. Pointing up, he yelled, “Oh my god, people are falling out of the building!” remembers Drew.
The photographer pointed his camera. “I took as many photos as I could of people falling out of the building,” he tells BBC News Brasil.
“I don’t know if they were jumping by choice or if they were forced to jump by fire or smoke. I don’t know why they did what they did. I just know I had to record it.”
The New York City Forensics Service later stated that people who jumped out of buildings could not be called “suiciders” because they were forced out of the building by smoke, fire or explosions. The cause of death for all those who lost their lives in the fall of the Twin Towers, attacked by al-Qaeda that day, was classified as “murder” on the death certificates.
In a 2002 report, USA Today calculated, through photos, videos and interviews, that 200 people died in this way in the tragedy of 9/11. From the photos, The New York Times estimated 50 people.
According to survivors’ accounts, seeing people jumping from the building next door may have saved the lives of hundreds of people who, seeing the scale of the disaster, rushed to evacuate their workplace. When leaving the buildings, they also saw bodies in the areas around the towers.
While shooting, Drew experienced something sinister: he heard the noise of bodies hitting the ground. “Some say I was cold. That’s not it. I’m a trained journalist. You dive in the moment and just photograph what’s happening, on autopilot,” he says.
“When someone started to fall, I would aim with my viewfinder. As I was working with a digital camera, when I held my finger on the camera button, it would take a series of pictures. And, like this, I would follow the people who were falling of building.” At 9:41, he forever recorded that man’s last moments.
When Drew returned to the newsroom and went to check his photos, he knew instantly that this was the strongest of them. “He was vertical, with his head down, between the two towers. There was a symmetry there. But he only stayed like that for a moment. If it were another moment, he would be in another position,” he says.
“A lot of people don’t like to see this photo. I think people identify with it, and they’re afraid of having to face the same decision as him someday.”
For him, the image is representative of what happened that day – “it’s one of the few that actually shows someone dying in the most serious attack we’ve ever suffered in the US,” he says. Despite being a photo about death, reckons Drew, it is a “silent” photo. “It’s not like other violent pictures of deaths that occurred in wars.”
When he got back to the house that night, Drew and a colleague who hadn’t made it back to his house sat and talked about everything but what they’d seen that day. His wife says, says Drew, that he got up at dawn wanting to vacuum the whole house. “Post-traumatic stress comes later,” he says. “Talking about what happened helps. That was a moment in my history, just as it was a moment in history.”
Another moment in history and its history: when he was 21 years old and living in Los Angeles, in 1968, Drew was one of four photographers present at another historic moment – the death of senator Bobby Kennedy, brother of former president John F Kennedy.
“I was on stage behind him to photograph him when he was speaking. I got thirsty and went to the kitchen to get some water,” says Drew. “He left through the kitchen, so I followed him. When he got hit, I climbed onto a table next to him and photographed him on the floor.”
“I was just doing my job, just like I was only doing my job years later, on 9/11.”
Who is this man?
The photographer of “O Homem Cando” says that he has already reflected a little on who the man he recorded was jumping from one of the twin towers, but never “so deep”.
“He was one of nearly 3,000 people who died that day. I don’t know his name, nor do I know about the decision he had to make. I know he fell off a building and I was there to capture that moment.”
But the mystery surrounding his identity has troubled others.
One of them, the American journalist Tom Junod. Two years after 9/11, Junod wrote a cover story for “Esquire” magazine coining the name “The Falling Man” for the photo and trying to identify the man in the picture.
Junod came up with two names: Norberto Hernandez, a chef at the Windows on the World restaurant, which was located on the 106th floor of the North Tower. But Hernandez’s family said it couldn’t be him because of the clothes he was wearing.
The second man was Jonathan Briley, a 43-year-old sound engineer who also worked at the restaurant. Briley’s brothers said they thought that, according to the man’s clothes and body, it could be him in the photo. It’s possible it’s him – but there’s no way to be sure.
In 2006, American director Henry Singer made a documentary based on Junod’s reporting, using other images captured that day.
Airplane in Kabul
Choosing between death and death seems to have also been what happened three weeks ago in Afghanistan, when, in utter despair to leave the country, men hung from the fuselage of an American plane.
The two images are like two terrible ends of this story that came together 20 years later.
Almost a month after the attacks on the Twin Towers, then US President George W. Bush announced the war against Afghanistan. The United States would remove from power the Taliban, which housed al Qaeda, the author of the attacks, in the territory it controlled.
Twenty years later, when current US President Joe Biden led the United States to end the war by pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, the world saw the Taliban come back to power at an extraordinary time.
It was the desperation of staying in a country again controlled by the Taliban that made Afghans cling to the wings and fuselage of an airplane. The plane takes off, and bodies are recorded as they plummet into nothingness – just as they did on 9/11. Remains were found on the landing gear after an aircraft landed in Qatar. A 19-year-old young football player, Zaki Anwari, died trying to escape in this way.
The Falling Man photographer declined to comment on Afghanistan or politics. Today, Drew photographs the emotion of the “brokers” on the New York Stock Exchange, right next to where the Twin Towers once stood – now a memorial to the victims of 9/11.
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