It was a crisp Manhattan morning on September 11, 2001 when, at 8:46 am, American Airlines Flight 11 cut across the clear autumn sky and plunged into the side of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. Eighteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.
Twenty years on, they are events that remain forever frozen in time, in no small part due to the images etched into the memories of millions around the world, but as Henry Singer’s documentary 9/11: The Falling Man discovers, they represent just part of the story.
Before the chaos and tragedy of that morning unfolded, accomplished Associated Press photographer Richard Drew was on his way to New York Fashion Week, when a call from his editor gave him what was to become the most important assignment of his career. Arriving at the base of the World Trade Centre, Drew was confronted with an unimaginable scene, and the devastating reality faced by those trapped above. Standing among the crowds gathered in the streets below, the shots he captured in those moments detailed not only the catastrophic damage to the once formidable buildings but also the carnage of the rescue mission unfolding before him.
The most heart-stopping shot to come out of Drew’s collection, however, was that of a single figure falling headfirst from the upper floors of the North Tower. The relentless and horrifying thud of people hitting the ground, sometimes in groups, sometimes individually, had been a tragic soundtrack to the devastation of the day, with archival footage capturing the reactions of those forced to listen as they helplessly watched on. By contrast, Drew’s image portrayed the quiet stillness of this man, suspended in a desperate search for safety and reprieve from the horror inside the towers.
The solitary figure, perfectly parallel against the lines of the sun-kissed building, distilled into one photograph the experiences of every individual who jumped on that fateful day. The feelings of discomfort, peace and horror it evoked perfectly captured the ten seconds of anguish felt by the hundreds who had accepted the same fate. It was a final act of defiance and opportunity for control in a situation where they had none. The emotion of the image was undeniable, and it was immediately picked up by newspapers and magazines across the world in the week following the attacks, splashed across the front page of countless major publications who dubbed the figure ‘the falling man’.
Whether it was because the American people felt it flew in the face of the heroism that became synonymous with 9/11, or because it was, understandably, too painful to look at, the outcry in response to the picture of the falling man saw it, along with the stories of all those who jumped, quickly airbrushed out of history. Their cause of death was collectively labelled, along with all who died, as homicide, and the narrative of their final moments was effectively erased. These are the stories that are finally told as the documentary revisits the 102 minutes from the moment of the first plane’s impact to the collapse of the second tower, following the trail of that now iconic photograph.
What began as a single frame on Drew’s camera roll quickly became one journalist’s search for the figure within it. The fascination with who this man could be, and the chance to tell his story, was countered by the public’s desire to distance themselves from him; the search revealed that no one wanted to identify the falling man as their family member or friend, or even consider the possibility.
Through the interviews conducted with those involved in the search, particularly the wife and daughters initially ‘accused’ of being his family, it’s clear that for many there was a shame associated with the reality that their loved one could have jumped to their death. As the investigation continues, the families of some of the individuals who were in the towers that day get the chance to share a little of the person they knew, putting faces to the thousands of lives lost.
The questions surrounding those that jumped are answered in these accounts. They encourage viewers to recognise that these were not just tales of hope abandoned or fear allowed to win, but rather a ‘rebellious act of freedom’. It was reframing America’s perspective that Esquire writer Tom Junod sought to achieve when, in his award-winning article, he described their deaths as such, two years after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, finally confronting America with the image once again that called it the country’s ‘most intimate connection to the horror of that day’. As the documentary shows, Junod’s acknowledgement of the uniqueness of Drew’s shot, its distinctive symmetry, and the history it created gave the image a new relevance, identifying it as one which, perhaps above all others, spoke to the truth of the events of 9/11.
Though he could never have known as he stood beneath the towers, Drew’s story is one of being in the wrong place at the right time. The image captured on that September morning at 9:41am represented not only the final moments of its subject, but continues to serve as a symbol of all those who found themselves faced with an impossible decision that day. Though he remains unidentified, perhaps it is the anonymity of the falling man that gives the photograph its greatest power.
9/11: The Falling Man premieres Monday 6 September at 7:30pm on SBS.