Wednesday, August 13, 2003

The September 2003 issues of magazines are coming out, and some of them have 9/11 anniversary articles, which of course I devour immediately as any obsessed person would.

The current Esquire has one of the most extraordinary 9/11 articles I have ever read, Tom Junod's "The Falling Man," which is about the human being who is the subject of this famous photograph. It's the story of AP photographer Richard Drew, who took the picture, and the person who forever inhabits it. Earlier press reports had identified the Falling Man as Windows on the World pastry chef Norberto Hernandez, but Junod makes a good case that he is another WotW worker, a light-skinned black man named Jonathan Briley.

The article is not available online, but I will type out Junod's exquisite, terrible first paragraph:

In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear to be intimidated by gravity's divine suction or by what awaits him. His arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on his feet. In all the other pictures, the people who did what he did--who jumped--appear to be struggling against horrific discrepancies of scale. They are made puny by the backdrop of the towers, which loom like colossi, and then by the event itself. Some of them are shirtless; their shoes fly off as they flail and fall; they look confused, as though trying to swim down the side of a mountain. The man in the picture, in contrast, is perfectly vertical, and so is in accord with the lines of the buildings behind him. He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun. Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else--something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is something almost rebellious in the man's posture, as though once faced with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as though he were a missile spear, bent on attaining his own end. He is, fifteen seconds past 9:41 A.M. EST, the moment the picture is taken, in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down. In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.

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