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Falling Bodies, a 9/11 Image Etched in Pain
The New York Times - September 10, 2004


Three years later, they remain open questions, and many people wonder if firm answers would lead to more pain or less, to practical lessons for society or to just a spectacle for the morbidly curious.

How many people jumped from the upper floors of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11?

Why did so many more people jump from the north tower than the south?

What floors did they come from?

Who were they?

The attack on the World Trade Center was one of the most observed catastrophes in history, and those who fell or jumped from the towers were, briefly, its most public victims. They emerged one or two at a time from a blanket of smoke and fire that rendered mass death virtually invisible. Nearly all the others killed that day - whether high in the trade center, on board the hijacked airplanes or deep inside the Pentagon - were beyond the sight of survivors and witnesses.

Those who came through the windows of the towers provided the starkest, most harrowing evidence of the desperate conditions inside. Since then, though, they have largely vanished from consideration. Newspapers rarely publish images of the falling people. Evacuation studies concentrated on the accounts of survivors.

The 9/11 Commission, which has compiled the most detailed history of the day, mentioned those who jumped only as they affected the people on the streets below.

Even now, there has been less fact-finding than guesswork. Some researchers say more than 200 people most likely fell or jumped to their death. Others say the number is half that, or fewer. None have been officially identified.

For the families of those who died, these uncertainties are bound to a sprawling spectrum of contradictory sentiments, impulses, and reluctance about examining this specific wound. Some raised questions about the manner of a loved one's death in meetings at the medical examiner's office, during the identification process, and continue to ponder it; others never pursued the matter in any public fashion.

"I want to know everything," said Liz Alderman, whose son, Peter, was last seen at a breakfast conference in the north tower. Peter Alderman sent out an e-mail at 9:25 a.m., reporting intense smoke on the 106th floor. What happened after that remains a mystery.

"The most important thing I will never know," Ms. Alderman said. "I won't know how much he suffered and I won't know how he died. I travel back into that tower a lot and I try to imagine, but there is no imagining."

Still others say they have learned to live with such uncertainties. They are not convinced that exploring the question of who jumped, and from where, is likely to produce anything more than sorrow.

Bill Doyle, the outreach director for WTC United Family Group, whose son Joseph died in the north tower, said many people cannot bear the topic. "A lot of them are still suffering," he said. "They don't want to be reminded that someone might have jumped."

A number of families discussed the question in interviews, but asked not to be quoted, concerned with what children might think of a lost parent, or worried about causing distress to other families, or believing that any words would be inadequate.

Gauging the Fires
As part of the major federal investigation into the collapse of the towers, investigators from the National Institute of Standards and Technology are reviewing amateur and professional videotapes that recorded many of the people who jumped or fell. "What data we have in this area are being used to better understand the movement and behavior of the fire and smoke in the towers, and that analysis will be in our final report in December," said Michael Newman, a spokesman for the agency.

The researchers are not trying to track individual identities, but to gauge the strength and speed of the fires. The number, location and time that people jumped could provide important clues on where the heat had grown particularly intense, according to Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Those who dropped from the windows provide powerful testimony on another major line of inquiry: the adequacy of the exits. Each floor had three exits to serve an acre of space -- or roughly the area occupied by a football field, perched more than 1,000 feet above the ground. In the north tower, all three stairways became impassable from the 92nd floor and up after the plane hit. As for the south tower, two of the three stairways were destroyed around the 78th floor.

"In the south tower, did they jump because they didn't know the stairwell existed, or because the path to the stairwell was blocked?" said Dr. Robyn Gershon, director of an evacuation study being done by Columbia University. "If the communications that day had been better, what might have been different?"

More than 1,000 people who survived the plane crashes, many on floors distant from the impact, had no way out.

Federal authorities reported that during the designing of the towers, the Port Authority dropped plans to use an earlier building code that would have required six stairways in each tower, and turned for economic reasons to the more lax requirements of a later code that required only three stairways. By building fewer staircases, it could make more of each floor available for rent.

Apart from the implications for public safety and policy, it is not difficult to understand why people have been loath to confront the topic.

Police helicopter pilots have described feeling helpless as they hovered along the buildings, watching the people who piled four and five deep into the windows, 1,300 feet in the air. Some held hands as they jumped. Others went alone. As the numbers grew, said Joseph Pfeifer, a fire battalion chief in the north tower lobby, he tried to make an announcement over the building's public address system, not realizing it had been destroyed.

"Please don't jump," he said. "We're coming up for you."

Almost instinctually on Sept. 11, people recognized that they had an unfortunate view into an intensely private matter, an unseemly intrusion not just into someone's death, but into the moment of their dying. American broadcast networks generally avoided showing people falling. A sculpture that depicted a victim, known as "Tumbling Woman," was removed from display at Rockefeller Center after one week.

Some commentators later remarked that those who had fallen had made one brave final decision to take control of how they would perish. Researchers say many people had no choice. Witness accounts suggest that some people were blown out. Others fell in the crush at the windows as they struggled for air. Still others simply recoiled, reflexively, from the intense heat.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said the city agency had not classified any of the dead as "jumpers," a term used when people jump to their deaths, because the people were forced from the buildings.

"This should not be really thought of as a choice," said Louis Garcia, New York City's chief fire marshal. "If you put people at a window and introduce that kind of heat, there's a good chance most people would feel compelled to jump."

Temperatures in pockets of the buildings rose to more than 1,000 degrees, sufficient to weaken steel, according to researchers. The first people jumped or fell from the upper floors of the north tower just minutes after the impact of American Airlines Flight 11. The heat reached people on the upper floors long before the flames. Some of those trapped reported that the floor itself had grown so hot they had to stand on their desks, according to a fire official.

"The heat was absolutely phenomenal," said Dr. Guylene Proulx, who studies human behavior in fires for the National Research Council of Canada. "If you have ever burned your finger, you know how much that hurts and how you pull away. In the trade center, it was such a hot fire. It was impossible to think you might survive. Why suffer a minute longer when it is so unbearable? It may have appeared to be the best thing to stop the pain, when the window is shattered and the opening is there."

Last week researchers who study human behavior in fire gathered for a three-day conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. While five of the major papers presented at the conference dealt with the fires in the towers, none of them touched on the subject of people who fell or jumped, said Dr. Proulx. "The focus is on the survivors and what made them successful or impeded their evacuation," she said.

Seeking a Refuge
Dr. Proulx noted that people rarely die by falling or jumping from high-rise fires. Far more common, she said, is that people will find a refuge where the heat can be endured. And indeed, in scores of phone calls that continued until the last minutes, people reported that they had gathered in conference rooms or offices that were protected from fire by walls. In areas with few or no walls, the flames burned for about 20 minutes before moving to the next space, the National Institute of Standards and Technology reported in June: "This spread was generally continuous because of the even distribution of combustibles throughout the floors and the lack of interior partitions."

While the institute has made public more than 1,000 pages of documents from its continuing investigation, it has not yet had any public discussion of the people who dropped from the building. "There will be reference to it in the final report," Mr. Newman said, acknowledging the delicacy of the topic. "I don't know how exact the count will be."

On March 25, 1911, at one of the worst fires of the early 20th century, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in Greenwich Village, young women and men jumped to their deaths from windows on the ninth floor because they were unable to reach or open any of the three exits. Witness accounts of the desperate scenes transformed American politics. Even so, officials never specified how many of the 146 victims died in falls. "There was not even a reliable list of the dead," David Von Drehle writes in "Triangle," (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003) an acclaimed account of the fire and its aftermath. William Gunn Shepherd, a reporter who happened to be in Washington Square when the fire started, counted 54 people who had jumped or fallen to the sidewalk.

In catastrophic high-rise fires, investigators typically seek the cause of death, whether from burns, smoke or falling. Of the 85 people killed in 1980 at a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, for example, one jumped from the building, according to a report by the medical examiner for Clark County, Nev. The fire at the Schomburg Plaza apartment complex in Harlem in March 1987 killed seven people, including three young people who fell from their apartment on the 33rd floor.

Several organizations have tried to estimate the number of people who fell or jumped on Sept. 11. In 2002, reporters for The New York Times, using a collection of videotapes, counted 50 people who fell or jumped. That tally did not include falling shapes that could not be identified with confidence as human. Later that year, USA Today, using a method that included eyewitness accounts, said the number was probably greater than 200.

A vast majority of those who fell or jumped came from the north tower, perhaps because many more people were trapped on far fewer floors than in the south tower. The north tower was hit first, from the 93rd to the 99th floor, about 15 floors higher than the south tower.

The 16 minutes between plane strikes gave large numbers of people from the south tower time to flee, an opportunity that many took, survivors said, after being frightened by the sight of people falling from the north tower. In addition, the south tower, though hit second, collapsed first, just 57 minutes after being struck, before deterioration had spread as widely.

In both towers, the people and debris that fell forced officials to reroute the evacuation, away from the plaza between the buildings. Two of the three stairwells in each building ended at the mezzanine level, where people were supposed to exit onto the plaza. With the plaza no longer a safe option, officials were forced to direct thousands of people down an additional level to the underground shopping concourse. Once there, they were steered by police officers and security guards along the improvised escape route.

Whatever form future research takes, it is unlikely to try to identify those who died by falling from the buildings. No one survived from the floors where people jumped. Photographs were typically taken from too far away to capture faces. The medical examiner's office said it was hard to distinguish the sorts of injuries suffered in a fall from those received by people who were crushed in a collapse.

Families on their own, however, have pored over the pictures that show people marooned on the upper floors. At times, they have seized on a feature of dress or mannerism as a clue to identity. In the months after Sept. 11, The Times published a picture of people visible at broken windows in the north tower. Two women who saw the picture said they believed strongly that a man in the photograph, the same man, was their husband.

Two years ago, Mr. Doyle recalled, he tried to help two other women who felt they, too, had recognized their husbands in a picture of the north tower's upper floors. Mr. Doyle happened to know the photographer and he took the women to a studio in Chinatown, where they studied a blown-up version. They did not know the men, after all.

"I don't know what these wives would have done," he said, "if that had been their husbands hanging out the window."

Suzanne McCabe, whose brother, Michael, worked on the 104th floor of the north tower, says she has no idea what happened to him. She has heard he may have tried to get to the roof. She says she tries to absorb new information at a measured pace. For her, detailed knowledge about what happened to her brother, even painful knowledge, would ultimately serve as balm. "The truth hurts," she said, "but it also heals."


© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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