Choice of The Falling Man

“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

"Tumbling Woman" sculpture by Eric Fischl in honor of those who chose to fall to their death rather than burn in a towering inferno on 9/11.

“Tumbling Woman” sculpture by Eric Fischl in honor of those who chose to fall to their death rather than burn in a towering inferno on 9/11.

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.

You can listen to an NPR interview with Tom Junod, Esquire author of the article “The Falling Man,” here.

Memorial  along the Schuylkill Banks Trail honoring Philadelphians won died in the World Trade Center on 911.

Memorial along the Schuylkill Banks Trail honoring Philadelphians won died in the World Trade Center on 911.

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.



About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
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13 Responses to Choice of The Falling Man

  1. Ant says:

    Wonderful post. I just watched the ‘Falling Man’ video on YT and was very moved. I too see the choice the people made who choose to jump as empowerment, they decided when it was their time to leave this world, not waiting and dying a helpless death. They claimed that right to decide about their lives back from the actions of the terrorists, and for that I respect them.


  2. Sophie33 says:

    What a cool post, dear Jim!


  3. Coach Brian says:

    Wow! Just found out I am visiting the memorial in April when I join my son on his school trip. I am looking forward to see the memorial.


    • Jim Brennan says:

      I’m planning to post more pictures I took at the 9/11 Museum, just haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s a very moving exhibit, and I found an emotional day, being in the caverns where 3,000 innocent victims lost their lives. In a weird sense, I had some sort of relief being there, like I shared something with the victims. I saw many class trips when I visited with my wife. I do class trips with my grandkids now, you will have a wonderful day with your son and his class.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. wow. I was 6 months pregnant with our youngest son and substitute teaching an a.m./p.m. Kindergarten. I knew I was in Ohio and not NYC, but, just the same. I’ll never forget listening for helicopters in between spilled milk and carpet time.


  5. LB says:

    I’ve thought many times about the people who chose to jump or fly to their death, but it never entered my mind to judge (honestly … that some people would judge…). I always think that it took an awful lot of courage to jump. What horror those pour souls had to endure.
    Thank you for the link to the story. Fascinatingly sad.


  6. runner500 says:

    A good piece Jim. People from all over the world died on 9/11, the memories live on though. A fan of my football (soccer) team’s rivals died that day but we put aside our differences and jointly support a fantastic charity which supports various football related projects


    • Jim Brennan says:

      An incredible story of how one life can touch so many. Through the man he was, disadvantaged children from NYC and around the world find happiness through football. Perhaps we will run one of Robert’s marathons together one day. Thank you for sharing, and hope you are on the mend.

      Liked by 1 person

      • runner500 says:

        It is an inspiring story, isn’t it? I am a while off running yet but walking quite a bit and doing some odd chair based ‘cycling’ but more importantly in much less pain and a lot more mobile than I was. Thanks for asking.


        • Jim Brennan says:

          Good for you. Doesn’t it put things in perspective to simply be pain-free? My brother was his by a mail truck (he swears it was Newman) while cycling several years ago. Fortunately he made a complete recovery and is back on the trails. Be well, and keep the marathon in mind.

          Liked by 1 person

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