After 9-11: a kick at the darkness

Pam
Pam Frampton
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“They began jumping not long after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died.”

— From a Sept. 8, 2009 Esquire article by Tom Junod titled “The Falling Man”

The crows arrive in the backyard before 5 a.m. Their sharp cries pull me from my sleep. Their wings tear the darkness to shreds. They strut aggressively through the slick grass. It feels as if they are picking at the wisps of fog in my brain with their pointed beaks.

The sky lightens perceptibly from black to dark grey.

I am in bed, halfway between sleeping and wakefulness. It is, as my friend Russell Wangersky once observed, the hour of bad decisions. It is a time when your brain can take you to the darkest places and make you confront the most disturbing thoughts.

I try to conjure up images that calm me — a fog-enshrouded lighthouse with its regular, rotating light. Then, in real time, a ship in St. John’s harbour sounds its fog horn, bolstering the image, but it’s not strong enough.

It cannot compete with the scenes from 9-11 that are replaying in my head — scenes that I have tried not to revisit in the 10 years since the twin towers were attacked.

Of course, the planes that flew into the World Trade Center, turning the buildings into 110-storey infernos, were not the only terrorist attacks in the United States that day. The heroes in that place were not the only heroes. But it is the horrifying pictures from New York that have lodged in my brain and rooted there.

People screaming, running, faces covered in soot and twisted with terror. Streets strewn with charred wreckage, burnt paper, layers of ash.

And, worst of all, images of people jumping, leaping to a certain crushing death from buildings that were 1,500 feet high before they burned, imploded and collapsed.

But the people don’t just plummet to the ground. It takes time. Video footage shows them falling end over end, hair and clothes buffeted by the updraft. Rag dolls. If only that’s what they were.

If your brain could get past the horror and enormity of the terrorist attacks that day — that we were now confronted with enemies who were only too willing to kill themselves in order to murder us in a series of catastrophic ambushes — there were other terrors to consider.

There were reports of grisly discoveries: the severed, bound wrists of flight attendants who had been aboard the hijacked planes. There were the last, desperate, heart-wrenching phone calls and text messages from loved ones realizing the inevitability of their deaths and wanting to say, “Goodbye. I love you.”

And there were the jumpers.

The 2006 documentary “9/11: The Falling Man,” based on a story by American writer Tom Junod, explores an aspect of Sept. 11 that, at the time, many people did not want to acknowledge: that is, that there were people — husbands and wives, siblings, colleagues, friends — who were forced to choose between suffocation and burning or jumping from the doomed towers.

The ones who chose the latter, as documentary narrator Steven Mackintosh observes, made “lonely 10-second journeys” above the heads of horrified onlookers. “A very public way of dying.”

A photographer at the scene who witnessed those desperate jumps said television stations chose not to air the footage, but he was there and heard the bodies hit the ground.

The writer, Junod, felt it was important to acknowledge those acts — whether they were borne of courage, faith or desperation. He said one disturbing photo by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew that showed a man’s head-first plummet to the ground “forced the world to acknowledge and remember” the terrible events of that day.

While Junod’s determination to uncover the identity of that “falling man” propels the documentary, in the end what he discovers is a very different truth: “The power of the image came not because the falling man could be identified,” he said, “but because he couldn’t.”

In a sense, Junod says, the raw image of the man descending through the air to his death became an icon for all those who died that day; he became 9-11’s “unknown soldier.”

And just as that unknown soldier chose to — in those final, excruciating moments — decide the manner of his death, so too should we confront the truths and horrors of Sept. 11. Because unless we confront and acknowledge the truth, we cannot move forward.

Nine-eleven killed thousands, left millions to mourn. It changed our world. It shook our sense of security to its very foundation, made us feel unsafe in our homes, our workplaces, on planes, with each other. But it did not destroy the things we believe in.

Onward we go.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at

pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: World Trade Center, Associated Press

Geographic location: United States, New York

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