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An image that traumatised a generation: The story of the Falling Man.

Warning: This post contains distressing subject matter and images that will not be appropriate for all readers. 

As New Yorkers stood, watching the apocalyptic scene of the North and the South World Trade Centers collapse before them, their eyes were drawn to unusual movement.

Debris, perhaps.

From the windows of both towers, onlookers noticed objects – one by one – falling from windows.

As it dawned on those below what they were likely witnessing, a mother is said to have whispered to her child, “Maybe they’re just birds, honey.”

Moments later a woman cried, “God! Save their souls! They’re jumping! Oh, please God! Save their souls!”

They were not objects, bystanders realised. And they certainly weren’t birds. They were people.

And ‘jumped’, according to the New York Medical Examiner’s Office, is not the right word.

“We don’t like to say they jumped,” the office told Esquire magazine in 2016. “They didn’t jump. Nobody jumped. They were forced out.”

And they were forced out almost immediately after the first plane hit. They were fleeing fire, or smoke which threatened to suffocate them. They were fleeing collapsing ceilings and floors, which threatened to crush them. They were attempting to escape death – not succumb to it.

Video cameras documented the falling towers, a visual metaphor for an attack on freedom and liberty.

In the United States, once news room realised what they were documenting – that is people falling to their deaths – they stopped broadcasting the footage.

But by then, the video had aired all over the world.

People in China or France or Canada or Australia had seen men and women falling, in an act of unimaginable desperation, from 110 story buildings. This wasn’t a television show. It was the worst kind of death imaginable delivered to lounge rooms, in some places just before bed, and in others, before they’d even had breakfast.

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They were images that traumatised a generation.

Whether one was nine or 79 in 2001, almost everyone can recall the image of human beings, who had turned up to work on an otherwise nondescript Tuesday, falling to their deaths by mid-morning.

It would’ve taken less than 10 seconds, we’d later read.

They were alive as they fell through the air, horrifyingly aware of what awaited them.

We’d see close up images of men and women standing in window sills – deciding not if they will die, but how.

A lower Manhattan resident named James Gilroy would retell a story of a woman standing at the window of her office.

“She had a business suit on, her hair was all askew. This woman stood there for what seemed like minutes, then she held down her skirt and then stepped off the ledge.

“I thought, how human, how modest, to hold down her skirt before she jumped…”

We watched on as many performed their final act of humanity.

One such figure would become known to history as the Falling Man, and on September 12, 2001, would be immortalised on page seven of The New York Times, as well as newspapers all over the world.

As soon as the image appeared, the question followed: Who was he?

The Falling Man. Image via Associated Press.
The Falling Man. Image via Associated Press.
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It was the role of reporter Peter Cheney, who was assigned by an editor at the Toronto Globe and Mail, to find out.

There were clues. He was dressed as a restaurant worker, likely employed by Windows of the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. When Cheney examined and enhanced the image, he saw a Latino man with a goatee.

It wasn't long before Cheney had hypothesised that the man was likely Norberto Hernandez, a Latino restaurant worker who lived in Queens.

He took the image to Hernandez's brother and sister, both of whom confirmed that the Falling Man was their brother. They had recognised him on news footage during that fateful morning; something about the way he fell was eerily familiar.

But Hernandez also had a wife and children. Did they see their husband and father in the image?

When presented with the photograph, Hernandez's older daughter said, offended and angry: "That piece of shit is not my father."

Their father or not, that snapshot, taken by a man named Richard Drew, would irreparably split their family.

In a feature published by Esquire magazine, it's reported that Tatiana, one of Hernandez's daughters, "kept seeing visions of her father in the house and kept hearing whispering suggestions that he died by jumping out a window."

They moved house.

His daughters insist that their father would have tried to come home.

In an interview, one daughter, Catherine, said: "He was trying to come home to us, and he knew he wasn't going to make it by jumping out a window."

Eulogia, his wife, says she knew her husband, had known him since she was 15, and he simply would not do that.

The man in the photograph is wearing an orange undershirt, and his family insist that Hernandez never owned a garment of that colour. It can't have been him.

Perhaps it was a different man. There are a number who fit the description. The terror attack claimed the lives of 2,977 victims - a number difficult to contemplate.

But in the end, does it truly matter who the man was?

Or is the Falling Man, like Tom Junod postulates, a manifestation of the Unknown Soldier? A testament to all those who were lost, regardless of age, class, race or even gender.

We can never know all the stories of those who were senselessly murdered on September 11, 2001. We cannot know their hopes, their fears or their potential.

And perhaps the Falling Man represents just that: all that we can never know about a cataclysmic event our generation will never forget.

For an in depth investigation on The Falling Man, read Tom Junod's piece in Esquire titled The Falling Man

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