10 years later

Ten years.

That’s a long time.

It’s long enough to heal. It’s long enough to hurt again and heal again. It’s long enough to come together then be driven apart. It’s long enough to lose thousands in a war. And another.

But it’s also long enough to forget.

Over the past week or so, I have read several different stories about this man:

This photo has been dubbed “The Falling Man.” It was snapped by an AP photographer named Richard Drew, and it is part of a sequence of multiple jumpers from that day. The picture is iconic in the way that the jumper seems — relaxed. Earlier in the sequence, he is shown coming from the window like a diver, face first. He flipped midair, into this “pose.”  Later in the sequence — which documented the last ten seconds of this man’s life — he rolls to his back. He waves his arms. His jacket flies off, revealing an orange shirt.

I saw this photo for the first time a few weeks after September 11 in a media trade magazine, asking the question, “should we, as the media, show this?” At the time, I didn’t know. I remembered the picture, but really hadn’t seen it again until recently, when it was published online and in the newspaper with the same question — should we be looking at this photo?

I think yes. Then sometimes, I think no.

I saw a documentary about a man who found a photograph of a woman jumping. She appeared to be wearing the same type of clothing as his wife was wearing that day, and she fit her general description and was in the correct tower at the right height. There are two grainy photos of her. In the first, she is at the broken window, halfway out the building, clinging to the side. In the second, she is in the air, her body in a “v” formation, arms up, face to the sky. The man said he was certain this was his wife, and it gave him peace. It gave him peace to know what happened to her, to know that she didn’t get burned or crushed. That she died on her own terms.

I assume not all family members would feel that way.

The “jumpers” were always the ones that stuck with me the most. I remember watching in disbelief as the jumpers were played over and over again in rebroadcasts. Then, they were rarely shown again after that, presumably to protect the families who might recognize them.  I tended to agree, and it was because of one man who I watched die — several times — as the feed was shown and re-shown on the television set next to my desk.

All these years later, I still don’t know how I feel about it. I think the photos of the jumpers are an important part of the record of September 11. But I still hope the families don’t ever see it.

I went back to a post I had written about it two years ago, and decided I would repost it, because I still feel the same.

From 2009:

On September 11, 2001, all those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and on board United 93 were already gone by the time I woke up. I remember the night before explicitly. I was working at a TV station in Rock Island, Illinois, and I had worked well past 11 that night. I came home and had a beer (disclaimer — I did not know I was pregnant at the time!) and went to bed, exhausted.

I woke up at 10 a.m. central time, two hours after the first plane hit, 40 minutes after Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, and 30 minutes after the second tower fell. All those lives — gone — as I slept soundly in my comfy three room apartment.

I woke up as usual. I normally went to work at 2 p.m., so I rarely set an alarm. I generally ambled out of bed, shoved a little coffee down my throat, and clicked on the news. But this particular morning, I had pulled back the blinds and noted what an awesome day it was. Blue skies, warm temperatures, summer holding on. I thought, I am going for a bike ride! I hadn’t gotten both feet over the bed and onto the floor when the phone rang. It was Cliff, the assignment editor at my station.

 ”You better get in here,” he said.

 ”Why?” I asked.

 ”You don’t… (sigh) Just turn on the TV.” He hung up.

I clicked on the TV to see what was already over — the towers were down, the Pentagon was attacked, a plane was down in Pennsylvania. Air traffic was grounded. The President was… somewhere. No one knew what the hell was going on. I threw on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and aimed my trusty Cavalier toward the station.

Six flights had been diverted to our airport in Moline. We rushed to the airport to talk to the travelers, all of whom had two questions: What the hell happened, and where the hell is Moline, Illinois? I don’t remember where those flights were from. We organized cut-ins from the network, live shots from the Rock Island Arsenal which had upped security, interviews with people at the airport trying to rent a car. We found people who knew people who knew people who worked in the towers. We talked to old military men and local officials about security and took feeds from Chicago which was sending everyone out of the city. We worked non-stop until after midnight, when I finally went home, downed another few beers (still not knowing I was pregnant, mind you) and sat in front of my TV, watching some more, until I finally fell asleep on the couch.

This morning I was discussing the day with my husband, and asked if he remembered the people jumping out of the buildings. He said he never saw that, and it occurred to me that part of the reason I saw it over and over is because I was working in TV, and I was watching the feeds all day. I wonder if the fact that I worked in TV and had access to feeds and video that weren’t necessarily shown on network TV is why I feel more haunted by September 11 than he does.

There was one man. I cannot tell you which tower he was jumping out of. He had dark hair, my guess is that he was somewhere between 25 and 40 years old. Average size, he was wearing a dark suit and a tie. He jumped from high up, and the camera followed him all the way down. He fought it every step of the way, kicking his legs, his arms flailing. He didn’t want to die. I could fee that much. But given the choice, die by jumping or die by fire, jumping was his better option. Yet still, he fought it, all the way down.

When I got home that night, before I snagged my beer, I thought about him. I went to the bathroom, and stared at my towels. I thought, somewhere in New York, or New Jersey, or Connecticut, is this man’s bathroom. His towel is hanging in the bathroom, possibly still damp from the shower he took this morning. Maybe he has a dog waiting for him to come home. Maybe his wife opened up one eye to see him leaving their room early that morning as she slept. Maybe there was a grocery list he had scribbled out stuck to his fridge. Maybe his kids were looking out the window, waiting for him. But one thing is for certain — his towel is hanging in the bathroom. His clothes are hanging in his closet. There’s food in his cabinets. The most basic of living essentials. Only he’ll never see them or touch them again.

I’m older and I have a husband and children now, including the one that was already brewing that day and I didn’t know about it. I have a completely different life now. But he’s still gone. I think about this man a lot, but more so on September 11. I wonder where he would be today if he had just missed that first train, or if he had accidentally slept in, or if his car wouldn’t start. I wonder why I had to watch him die. I wonder who picked up his towel, washed it, folded it, and put it away. I hope for them, they didn’t have to see what I saw.

1 Comment

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One response to “10 years later

  1. MOM

    I really believed that everything I saw falling from the buildings was paper or curtains.I don’t think I wanted to know it was really people.I came out of the shower right after the first plane hit and thought what a terrible accident,until the second plane hit. Needless to say I watched the whole day and cried just like I did the other day. I always read your poem on that day too. That makes me cry and I am crying again. Love Mom

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