9/11 “Falling Man” phenomen. 200 falling bodies from WTC that history forgot.
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None of the images spells out the horror of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers than the grainy pictures of those falling bodies frozen in mid-air as they fell to their deaths, tumbling in all manner of positions, after choosing to escape the suffocating smoke and dust, the flames and the steel-bending heat in the highest floors of the World Trade Centre.
In many ways, the falling bodies from WTC are tragically the forgotten victims of September 11, 2001. Even now, nobody knows for certain who they were or exactly how many they numbered. Perhaps worst of all, surprisingly few even want to know.
From the first days after the 9/11 attacks, the American people and the media showed an overwhelming reluctance to dwell on those who jumped or fell from the Twin Towers.
If this was simply down to qualms at being considered intrusive or voyeuristic when individuals in the most appalling circumstances chose in desperation to die very publicly, it would be understandable.
But there are other, more complicated, reasons. In the aftermath of this attack on America’s sovereign territory — a period of intense patriotism — some considered that to choose to die rather than be killed showed a lack of courage.
And in this country of intense religious fervour, many believe that to be a “jumper” was to choose suicide rather than accept the fate of God — and suicide in whatever circumstances is considered shameful or, indeed, a sin that will send you to Hell.
Almost all of the falling people who jumped were alone, although eyewitnesses talked of a couple who held hands as they fell.
One woman, in a final act of modesty, appeared to be holding down her skirt. Other people tried to make parachutes out of curtains or tablecloths, only to have them wrenched from their grip by the force of their descent.
The fall was said to take about 10 seconds, but it would vary according to the body position and how long it took to reach terminal velocity — around 125 mph (about 200 km/h) in most cases, but if someone fell head down with their body straight, as if in a dive, it could be 200 mph (more than 320 km/h).
When the body hit the pavement was not so much broken as obliterated.
A spokeswoman of the New York chief medical examiner office said this week that they did not consider these people “jumpers”. She said people fell from the 1,350 ft tall (more than 400 meters), 110-floor skyscrapers, for jumping would imply suicide.
“Jumping indicates a choice, and these people did not have that choice,” spokeswoman said.
“That is why the deaths were ruled homicide, because the actions of other people caused them to die. The force of explosion and the fire behind them forced them out of the windows.”
For those people who have discovered that their loved ones may have been among the estimated 200 or more who plunged to their deaths, this uncomfortable official reticence can only compound the suffering they have already endured.
For instance, Jack Gentul cannot possibly imagine his late wife’s torment before she died. Alayne Gentul, mother of two and the 44-year-old vice president of an investment company, was in the South Tower and had gone up to the 97th floor to help evacuate staff after the other tower was hit. In her final moments, she rang her husband to say in labouring breaths that smoke was coming into her room through vents.
“She said <<I’m scared>>. She wasn’t a person who got scared, and I said, <<Honey, it’ll be all right, it’ll be all right, you’ll get down>>.”
Alayne Gentul’s remains were found in the street outside the building across from the tower — sufficiently far from the rubble to suggest she had jumped. Her husband, Jack Gentul, who has since remarried, is not convinced she took that option but is clearly irked that some believe jumping was some sort of cop-out.
“She was a very practical person who would have done whatever she could to survive,” Jack Gentul explained.
“But how can anyone know what one would do in a situation like that, having to choose how you go from this Earth?”
Knowing that his former wife jumped is, indeed, consoling to Jack Gentul in some ways, in that she exercised an element of control over her death.
“Jumping is something you can choose to do,” Gentul says.
“To be out of the smoke and the heat, to be out in the air, it must have felt like flying.”
On the morning of 9/11, investment banker Richard Pecarello watched from his office on the other side of the river as the second plane hit. Pecarello’s fiancée Karen Juday was working as an administrator at bond traders Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower.
Richard Pecarello tried to phone her but there was no answer, and for days and weeks after he looked at photographs on the internet and wondered if she had jumped. Karen Juday was vain about her face and used anti-wrinkle cream, and he was certain she would have jumped rather than face the flames.
Richard Pecarello, 59, made contact with Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, who had captured images of many of the jumpers, and asked to look through his archives. He discoverd a couple of photographs of a woman in cream trousers and blue top which he is convinced were of his fiancée .
“There was one of her standing in a window with flames behind her and one of her falling from the building,” he said.
“It made me feel she didn’t suffer and that she chose death on her terms rather than letting them burn her up.”
Richard Pecarello has no time for suggestions that she took the easy way out.
“The people who died that day weren’t soldiers. They were everyday people — parents and housewives and brothers and sisters and children,” he said.
When Richard Pecarello tried to show the photos to Karen’s staunchly Protestant family back in Indiana, they didn’t want to know. Family go by the official version, that nobody jumped.
Nobody in US liked talking about the jumpers.
An unofficial estimate put the number of jumpers at around 200, but it is impossible to say for certain because their bodies were indistinguishable from others after the collapse of the WTC Twin Towers. The official reports said that nearly all 2,753 victims in the WTC Twin Towers attack officially died from “blunt impact” injuries.
In 2011, more than 1,000 have yet to be identified from remains. They were vaporised because of the high temperatures; after the planes hit, raging fires pushed the temperatures to 1,800 F ( 1,000 C), sufficient to weaken the skyscrapers’ steel frames.
The steel conducted the heat through the building at a terrifying speed and it reached the upper floors long before the flames did.
There were reports of people having to stand on desks because the floor became so hot.
Fire experts say people rarely throw themselves out of burning high-rises until they have exhausted every other option. Indeed, as survivors desperate for fresh, cool air crowded at the windows smashed open by the force of the planes’ impact, it is possible some of the “jumpers” were actually pushed out in the crush.
The only research that comes close to being an official account is buried deep in an appendix of the huge report into why the towers collapsed, conducted by the National Institute for Standards and Technology(NIST).
NIST analyzed camera footage and still photographs, and counted 104 jumpers, often recording the floor and exact window from which they left.
Almost all people, excepting three, leapt from the first building to be hit — the North Tower. The second plane struck the South Tower 16 minutes later but it collapsed first, giving occupants less time to react.
The first jumper is recorded plunging from the North Tower’s 149th window of the 93rd floor on the north face of the building at 8.51 a.m., just over four minutes after it was hit by the first hijacked Boeing 757 between the 93rd and 99th floors.
Sometimes the fallers were separated by an interval of just a second. At one point nine people fell in six seconds from five adjacent windows; at another, 13 people fell in two minutes. Twenty minutes after the building was struck, two people fell simultaneously from the same window on the 95th floor.
At least four jumpers tried to climb to other windows for safety then lost their grip. One person climbed from the 93rd floor to the 92nd, clinging to the window’s edge before falling just one second after someone else plumetted from the same window — number 215 on the east face of the tower.
The first jumpers came from the crash zone where the plane entered the building — the offices of the insurance brokers Marsh & McLennan.
The last jumper fell just as the North Tower collapsed 102 minutes after the building had been hit. Former AP photographer Richard Drew said he has a picture of this person clinging to some debris while falling.
Kelly Reyher watched from the South Tower’s 78th floor as people started to fall out of “the hole” the aircraft had ripped in the North Tower. To him, they looked “completely confused” rather than consciously deciding to end it all.
“It looked like they were blinded by smoke and couldn’t breathe because their hands were over their faces,” Reyher says.
“They would just walk to the edge where the jagged floor was and just fall out.”
Six floors below Kelly Reyher, James Logozzo watched with stunned colleagues from the Morgan Stanley boardroom. He recalled that it took three or four jumpers to flash past him before he realised they were people. Then a woman fell, lying flat on her back and staring upwards.
“The look on her face was shock. She wasn’t screaming,” he recalled.
“It was slow motion. After she hit the ground, there was nothing left.”
For the people down below, the bodies landed with sickening, almost explosive thuds. Many said it was raining bodies.
One fireman, Danny Suhr, was killed as he made his way to the South Tower after a jumper landed on him, “coming out of the sky like a torpedo” and breaking his neck.
Firefighter Maureen McArdle-Schulman said she felt like she was intruding on a sacrament as the bodies fell.
“They were choosing to die and I was watching them and shouldn’t have been. So me and another guy turned away and looked at a wall and we could still hear them hit,” she said.
Bill Feehan, the deputy chief of the fire department, screamed at a man filming jumpers with a video camera: “Don’t you have any human decency?”
Fire battalion chief Joseph Pfeifer put out a desperate plea on the North Tower’s public address system. “Please don’t jump. We’re coming up for you,” he said, not realizing that nobody was listening — the system had long since been destroyed.
Images of the falling bodies disturbed and appalled all who saw them. On the first anniversary of the tragedy, an exhibition showing a work called Tumbling Woman, a bronze sculpture by artist Eric Fischl, lasted just a week in New York’s Rockefeller Centre before it was closed following protests and even bomb threats.
One picture has become an iconic image. When a man fell at 9.41 a.m. from near the top of the North Tower, Richard Drew caught a dozen frames of his descent, including one in which he is diving vertically, arms by his sides and left leg bent at the knee. The image, all the more horrific for its desolate stillness, appeared the next day in newspapers around the world.
Dubbed the Falling Man, it prompted the media to hunt for the man’s identity. None of those who jumped from the towers has ever been officially identified and, tellingly, nobody rushed to claim Falling Man as their own.
Dark-skinned, goatee-bearded, wearing an orange T-shirt under a white shirt , he was first thought to be Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at the restaurant Windows on the World, on the top floors of the North Tower. His deeply religious family angrily rejected the notion, insisting that for him to have jumped would have amounted to a betrayal.
“He was trying to come home to us and he knew he wasn’t going to make it by jumping out a window,” his daughter Catherine said.
Since then, the hunt for the Falling Man has moved on to another of the restaurant’s staff, Jonathan Briley, a 43-year-old sound engineer. The reaction of his deeply religious family has highlighted the deep moral complexities that suicide — whatever the circumstances — poses in a country where so many believe it is a sin, unforgivable by God.
Some of Jonathan Briley’s family have never believed he jumped, and say they were vindicated after the authorities found his largely intact body.
“I had no idea it would give me the peace years later to know that,” said his sister Gwendolyn.
“If he had fallen from the 110th floor to the ground we wouldn’t have had that.”
When a 9/11 Memorial Museum opens at Ground Zero next year, it will have a small display dedicated to the jumpers, but reflecting the intense feelings of unease the subject has provoked, it will be tucked away in an alcove, on the grounds that the images are considered too private and too distressing.