: 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.
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.