Falling

Falling

: A few days ago, I wrote a piece about the image I cannot bear from September 11th: the falling.

It was wrenching to write and apparently wrenching to read, for I received some very touching notes and comments from people suggesting dealing with PTSD. Let me assure you that I’m fine. I meant everything I said in that piece but, of course, it’s a concentrated view of one aspect of the day and the aftermath and though metaphor is real, it’s still mataphor.

Today, I read something even more wrenching: a New York Times report on the people who fell.

It points out what I speculated about back then: that perhaps many of the people who fell did not jump but fell out of the windows as they leaned out to get oxygen or to escape the unbearable heat and smoke or under the crush of other people trying to do the same thing.

Police helicopter pilots have described feeling helpless as they hovered along the buildings, watching the people who piled four and five deep into the windows, 1,300 feet in the air. Some held hands as they jumped. Others went alone. As the numbers grew, said Joseph Pfeifer, a fire battalion chief in the north tower lobby, he tried to make an announcement over the building’s public address system, not realizing it had been destroyed.

“Please don’t jump,” he said. “We’re coming up for you.”

Almost instinctually on Sept. 11, people recognized that they had an unfortunate view into an intensely private matter, an unseemly intrusion not just into someone’s death, but into the moment of their dying. American broadcast networks generally avoided showing people falling. A sculpture that depicted a victim, known as “Tumbling Woman,” was removed from display at Rockefeller Center after one week.

Some commentators later remarked that those who had fallen had made one brave final decision to take control of how they would perish. Researchers say many people had no choice. Witness accounts suggest that some people were blown out. Others fell in the crush at the windows as they struggled for air. Still others simply recoiled, reflexively, from the intense heat.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said the city agency had not classified any of the dead as “jumpers,” a term used when people jump to their deaths, because the people were forced from the buildings.

“This should not be really thought of as a choice,” said Louis Garcia, New York City’s chief fire marshal. “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.”

What’s almost more difficult than reading again about this image that I find unbearable is reading about the horror within the buildings:

Temperatures in pockets of the buildings rose to more than 1,000 degrees, sufficient to weaken steel, according to researchers. The first people jumped or fell from the upper floors of the north tower just minutes after the impact of American Airlines Flight 11. The heat reached people on the upper floors long before the flames. Some of those trapped reported that the floor itself had grown so hot they had to stand on their desks, according to a fire official.

“The heat was absolutely phenomenal,” said Dr. Guylene Proulx, who studies human behavior in fires for the National Research Council of Canada. “If you have ever burned your finger, you know how much that hurts and how you pull away. In the trade center, it was such a hot fire. It was impossible to think you might survive. Why suffer a minute longer when it is so unbearable? It may have appeared to be the best thing to stop the pain, when the window is shattered and the opening is there.”

Then there are the questions of how many and who fell. The Times quotes earlier estimates saying as many as 200 did.

When I wrote my news story about surviving the attacks on September 11 (I recorded these audio memories days later), I got the number way wrong. I said I saw at least three; as a reporter, I felt compelled to give a number and make sure it was right. But I know I saw many more. Now I think this was some strange, subconscious effort to protect my memory from the reality I’d witnessed. The human in me defeated the reporter in me. Surely, I apparently wished, this couldn’t have happened to more than three. Surely, I didn’t really see that. Lord, I wish I hadn’t seen that.

200.

That’s another hard number. 2,726 dead. 1,000 degrees. 200 fell.

It’s important to remember. It’s important to prevent. But I wonder whether we are reaching the point at which it is no longer important to dissect every aspect of that day, every toll of tragedy, every pain.

  • Andy

    whether we are reaching the point at which it is no longer important to dissect every aspect of that day, every toll of tragedy, every pain.
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    That would be a seachange in our way of viewing the world and reporting news. We have a game mentality. Every thing is about winners and losers. Perhaps more accurately, victors and victims.
    We cannot understand news unless it is filtered as a victory or tugs as a tale of the victim. Blame must be assigned. Fault must be found. Events do not happen without cause. Every cause must have a victim.
    Individual actions are not responsibility of the victim. The individual is only responsible when they are the victor. The Cult-of-Victimhood has been researched and reported for decades.
    I doubt that a newscast can be done without a scoreboard mentality and exploiting the victim of some injustice. The practice, now habits are into the third generation.
    Lenin said “It takes 40 years to change society”. Look at how we have changed since 1964. Look at the language we use and expectations we have.
    Do you really believe that we can communicate without the victim as the center? We expect the victim to draw our common interests and shared emotions. Without the victim, what shall the news reporters use to hold our interest?
    We need the victim. we need the details of their life. We need the details of their victimhood. A multi-billion dollar industry depends on it. Tens of thousands of jobs depend on it.
    Politicians need victims to save. Noblisse Oblige and lesse majesty require a victim.
    Without the details we must deal with the statistical facts and generalities in making a decision. That would make us cold, impersonal, and Republican at our core.

  • http://strangewomenlyinginponds.typepad.com Brant

    Jeff:
    It would only be appropriate to stop examining the pain and suffering of that day if it became a substitute for taking action to prevent it from happening again. I tend to agree with Mark Steyn’s remark that weepy candlelight vigils are a poor substitute for doing something about terrorism. At the same time, remembering the horror helps maintain the fire in the belly that makes decisive action possible.

  • michelle

    I don’t want to ever stop remembering the individuals lost on September 11th. Eva Cassidy’s Songbird’s CD must have been in my CD turnstyle that fall. I can’t listen to her interpretation of Johnny Mercer’s Autumn Leave without reflecting on Sept. 11th. I weep for all those whose loved ones didn’t come home.
    The falling leaves drift by the window
    The autumn leaves of red and gold
    I see your lips, the summer kisses
    The sunburned hand I used to hold
    Since you went away the days grow long
    And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
    But I miss you most of all, my darling
    When autumn leaves start to fall
    I see your lips, the summer kisses
    The sunburned hand I used to hold
    Since you went away the days grow long
    And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
    But I miss you most of all, my darling
    When autumn leaves start to fall

  • http://www.tommangan.com/mt Tom Mangan

    Jeff,
    After reading ‘Never Forget’ and ‘Always Remember’ and ‘Never Again’ enough times, people tend to lose the true magnitude of the event. Sure, they remember what happened, but it doesn’t bring out the same level of emotion anymore.
    It’s important in the fight against a murderous ideology that we recall exactly why that ideology must be brought down. If it takes a dissection of some very hurtful aspect of that day (or of the many others) it’s worth it to retain the level of anger and sadness required to bring terrorists to their justified end.
    I wasn’t as close as you. I was in my office on 51st St, but I recognize the need to keep those strong emotions fresh. You speak of “some subconscious effort to protect my memory from the reality I’d witnessed.” The fact that you posted that NYTimes piece suggests that perhaps your subconscious understands the need to dissect aspects of that day.
    I’ve reposted the piece I put on my site on 12 Sep 2001 on my blog.

  • Alice

    If it makes you stronger, think about every gruesome detail. If it makes you weaker to break it all down and pick those scabs, then move on and embrace ‘the best revenge is a happy life’ approach.

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