“You felt compelled to watch out of respect for them. They were ending their lives without a choice and to turn away would have been wrong.” – Louis Griffith Jones
Spend a day at the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, witness twisted iron beams, remnants of fire trucks, and the photos and profiles of the nearly 3,000 innocent people who lost their lives, and you will walk away emotionally drained. But to me, the most emotional part of the visit was an exhibit with a small sign on the entrance warning visitors of the disturbing content inside. The exhibit contained large-scale photographs and videos honoring the 9/11 victims who chose to fall to their death from the top floors of the World Trade Center rather than burn in the towering inferno.
As I walked through the exhibit reading testimonials, viewing images, and watching videos of people free-falling to their death, I couldn’t help thinking about the choice they were faced with that clear September morning. People like you and I who woke that morning, made coffee, fed their pet, and kissed loved ones goodbye with every intention of going to work, school, or perhaps to sightsee, and then return later in the day. On the subway or ferry they likely thought about meetings they’d attend, a resume for another job they planned to finish, or a friend they’d meet for lunch. Instead, the building that was home away from home to many of them was engulfed in flames within hours of their arrival.
I wondered what their first reaction was 100+ floors above the Lower Manhattan street when the building shook violently, and then the floors and walls radiated intolerable heat, smoke swirled, the elevators shut down, and stairwells clogged. It couldn’t have been long before everyone on the upper floors knew their fate. Imagine being faced with a life or death decision before morning break.
But not everyone on the upper floors of the World Trade Center accepted the fate their perpetrators intended for them on 9/11. Rather then accept a harrowing death trapped inside a crucible, they made their own choice for their final act–they chose to fly. I imagined them emerging from a chaotic, smoke-filled inferno and stepping out into the brisk September air, a crystal clear sky with a crisp view of Ellis Island, Central Park, the East River. I prayed they found peace on their final step.
Since my visit to the museum I’ve come across a few opinions written that were critical of the 9/11 victims who chose their own fate. I wonder how blatantly righteous and judgmental someone must be to pretend to put themselves in the shoes of another human being whose life is about come to an unplanned and violent end. No doubt their opinions were written from the comfort of a warm office. The decisions I’ve been faced with in my lifetime seem innocent, even inane, in comparison to those who chose a different fate that day.
I am humbled by the courage and independence of those who chose to fly.
Postscript: I ran along the Schychkill Banks in downtown Philly this week, a trail I’ve cycled and run many times, and for the first time noticed a large piece of I-beam on the side of the trail. I stopped and looked for a long time at a piece of iron from the World Trade Center that was made into a memorial honoring Christopher Robert Clark, age 33, Kevin Leah Bowser and Jasper Baxter, both 44, Philadelphians who died that day in the burning towers. How young, I thought.