Friday, September 11, 2009

Some Thoughts

A few weeks back, reflecting upon the upcoming anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I stumbled across this article in USA Today. The article was an attempt to catalog the number of people who fell to their deaths from the towers before the towers collapsed, and it is accompanied by perhaps the most iconic photograph of a day cursed and blessed with iconic photography, of a man falling head down from the towers. Of the various and countless tragedies that accompanied that day, the stories and pictures of people falling to their deaths, either by choice or by accident, are certainly the most gripping and horrific. I'm sure this is because most of horrified by the idea of falling, of the long, lingering seconds between the jump and fall and the instant death that follows. And we are stunned into silence by the stories of so many people who died this way, and the photograph of a man who-by the accident of a snapshot-seemed to be choosing to face his death head on. In fact the man, like all who fell that day, tumbled through the air out of control. But the image, though misleading, manages to convey a deeper truth to us, which is that on that day there were certainly people who chose to jump rather than face their deaths from smoke or fire.

Such is the power of images, a phenomenon which of course has already been explored at length given that so much of 9/11 was photographed and recorded on video. An entire novel was inspired by that image. I don't have much to add to that. But I was struck by two passages in the USA Today article:

"It took three or four to realize: They were people," says James Logozzo, who had gathered with co-workers in a Morgan Stanley boardroom on the 72nd floor of the south tower, just 120 feet away from the north tower. "Then this one woman fell."

She fell closer to the south tower, he recalls. Logozzo saw her face. She had dark hair and olive skin, a white blouse and black skirt. She fell with her back to the ground, flat, staring up.

"The look on her face was shock. She wasn't screaming. It was slow motion."

Eric Thompson, who worked on the 77th floor of the south tower, went to a conference room window after the first jet hit. He was shocked when a man came to a north tower window and leapt from a few floors above the fire. Thompson looked the man in the face. He saw his tie flapping in the wind.

What is it like to look into the face of someone who will die only moments later? Who knows that they will die? What is it like to look upon them when you yourself are safe, and cannot know their agony? I think these are the questions that are forced upon us, if at some remove, when we look upon the images of those who fell from the towers that day, and particularly the photograph of the falling man.

I don't know what it's supposed to feel like to look at those pictures. I don't know what it can possibly be like to look at the face of someone plummeting to their death. Can anyone make sense of such a thing? Of being the last person to look upon someone before they die, before even their body will be destroyed?

I do think that these images come the closest to conveying to us what we lost that day. When we look upon the images of those who fell, we become aware of the vast, yawning chasm between ourselves and the dead, a chasm that can never be breached. We look upon those who only hours before were going to work just like you and I do every single day, and we look upon them again in the instant before they die, after their entire world has been turned upside down but before it is destroyed entirely. How can such a thing even be explained? It cannot be of course, and 9/11 made many of us intimately aware of such an imponderable for the first time. On that day, for many of us, questions were asked that can never be answered to anyone's satisfaction. On that day, people who were healthy and whole one minute are dead only moments later, and are now eight years gone even though they are also frozen in time for us. Who can ever hope to make any sense of that?


Nat-Wu said...

I just don't understand the feelings of people who didn't lose anyone, but who reject the images of people falling. Why is it wrong for us to admit that people committed suicide in the face of certain death?

Xanthippas said...

Honestly, I think it's just too painful for some people to look at. But they should know that's personal to them, and that there is merit in seeing those images.

Nat-Wu said...

I'm not sure if I want to see those pictures either. But I'm not outraged by the thought of them being published.