3rd June 2023
The Story Behind the Haunting 9/11 Photo of a Man Falling From the Twin Towers
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The Story Behind the Haunting 9/11 Photo of a Man Falling From the Twin Towers

At 8:46 in the morning. The Boeing 767 aircraft hit the north façade of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. A further 767 hit the south tower 16 minutes later.

In an instant, New York City changed forever, along with the hearts and minds of the American people. The images from that tragic day are as horrific as they are iconic: smoke trailing from the twin towers, people running in fear on the ground below, and, eventually, two holes in the iconic city skyline.

The most widely seen images from 9/11 are of planes and towers, not people. Falling Man is different.

The photo, taken by Richard Drew in the moments after the September 11, 2001, attacks, is one man’s distinct escape from the collapsing buildings, a symbol of individuality against the backdrop of faceless skyscrapers. On a day of mass tragedy, Falling Man is one of the only widely seen pictures that shows someone dying.

A Quiet Photograph

TIME discusses ‘The Falling Man’ with photographer Richard Drew.

“It’s a very quiet photograph,” Drew says about “The Falling Man.” “It’s not like a lot of other violent photographs from other disasters.”

Indeed, it is not. Other photos of the tragedy show flames, debris, and falling buildings, but “The Falling Man” shows the desperation of one man with no option but to leap from a skyscraper window. It also echoes the fate of over 200 people who chose to jump rather than to be trapped in the towers that day.

After the attacks, the New York City medical examiner’s office refused to call those who had jumped “jumpers.” That term had previously been used to define those who had planned to jump to their death, rather than those forced to by tragic circumstances.

Drew saw many deaths like that on the morning of Sept. 11. He recalled being told of the incident by a fellow photographer while working on the first day of Fashion Week. Like many, Drew wasn’t aware of the seriousness of the attacks yet. He simply believed some kind of explosion had taken place. He soon received word that a plane had hit the towers, and he caught a train across town.

A Photo Seen Around The World

Drew remembered arriving by subway at the scene, coming up from the Chambers Street exit and watching helplessly as dozens of people began to fall from the top floors. His journalistic instincts immediately kicked in and he began to capture the chaos on film, snapping photos of those on the ground and in the air.

“I didn’t know I had that photograph of that man in that position until I actually saw it on my computer,” Drew said of “The Falling Man.” “I called one of our photo editors and I showed him the picture and I said ‘This is it, this has got to be the picture.’”

The photo editor agreed. The next day the photo appeared in dozens of publications across the country, including the New York Times. The backlash over the photo’s graphic nature was so severe that it wasn’t run again.

“It was a very brave thing for them to use that picture,” Drew said of the Times. “It was the only picture that was like that… the only picture that showed any kind of human interaction [with the building] like that.”

Who Was “The Falling Man”?

Richard Drew on his experience capturing ‘The Falling Man.’

Despite the infamy of the photograph, the man in the photograph has never been identified.

“We don’t know if he died on the way down… they say there are rumors that you die before you… you know, if you fall…” Drew said of the man’s fate. “We don’t know if he was forced out by [the] fire or if he chose his fate.”

Because the body was never recovered, there has never been any formal identification. Over the years theories popped up over his identity though none have been proven.

A reporter for the Canadian publication The Globe and Mail once claimed that the man was Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at Windows on the World, a cafe on the 106th floor of the North Tower. Initially, Hernandez’s family was inclined to agree, though they were less convinced after further inspection of his clothing in the photo.

Another reporter for Esquire claimed that the man was a different employee of Windows on the World, a sound engineer named Jonathan Briley. Briley’s manager at Windows on the World, as well as his family, agreed that the man’s clothing in the photo resembled Briley’s usual attire.

“When I first looked at the picture […] and I saw it was a man — tall, slim, I said, ‘If I didn’t know any better, that could be Jonathan,’” his sister Gwendolyn told The Sunday Mirror.

“The Falling Man” As Everyman

Today, “The Falling Man” represents much more than just one man’s fate that day. It encapsulates everyone that day who chose to jump and has become a point of introspection for those who watched the tragedy from afar: given the choice, or perhaps lack thereof, what would you have done that day?

“I’ve never regretted taking that photograph. It’s one of the only photographs that shows someone dying that day,” Drew said, pointing out again that most photos reflect the destruction of the towers and not the pain of the people. “We have a terrorist attack on our own soil and we still don’t have pictures of people dying.”

Drew hopes that “The Falling Man” can now come out of the shadows after almost two decades. It’s no longer a gruesome shot of a single man’s fate, but a quiet reminder, suspended in history, of the fate of dozens.

“I like to think of him as sort of the unknown soldier,” said Drew. “Let him represent everyone that had that fate that day.”