Falling From Tall Buildings

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I have always been afraid of heights.

This phobia has migrated from childhood terror to an adult uneasiness, but I still get a twinge of fear when I step into the elevator of a really tall building—especially in Manhattan. The thought of plummeting from the highest floors of a skyscraper to the concrete and asphalt below provokes a fear in me unmatched by others' fear of flying. Planes sometimes fall from the sky. Buildings almost never do.

I think that's one of the main reasons Sept. 11 hit me so hard personally. I was at home in my apartment in San Antonio when I got a call from work that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. As the content director for the San Antonio newspaper's Web site, the first thing I did was go online and begin posting updates.

When I logged into The Associated Press' photo Web site—which contained all the raw, unedited images coming from the scene—I was horrified at what I saw there that television wasn't showing me: Telephoto zooms of desperate office workers jumping (or falling) to their deaths. I watched these images flash before me on my computer screen as I talked to my editor on the phone and watched and listened to coverage of the attacks. I could only imagine the terror someone would have to feel to choose jumping over facing the intense heat of the fire.

Most of the world never saw those images in their newspapers and on the television news in the days, weeks and months that followed. In fact, it was difficult to find them online. Journalists such as myself—no doubt feeling the same horror I did—had successfully sheltered most of the mainstream world from the true extent of the horror.

One photo—The Falling Man—has become the enduring image of this particular type of human suffering and courage. But even this photo has been successfully expunged from much of the public record.

Two years after the attacks, Esquire magazine ran an amazing story examining the identity and motivation of the mysterious Falling Man and his seemingly peaceful descent to earth—along with the effect the photograph has had on the families to which he has been connected. On this day of reflection, this story tells us a lot more about ourselves and our relationship to Sept. 11 than it does anything else.

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