“The Falling Man”: Inside The 9/11 Photo So Gruesome Newspapers Could Only Publish It Once

“The Falling Man” is one of the most iconic pictures from the September 11th terrorist attacks, but little is known about its tragic subject.

The Falling Man On 9/11

At 8:46 AM on September 11, 2001, a Boeing 767 aircraft hit the facade of the north tower of the World Trade Center. 16 minutes later, another 767 struck the south tower.

In an instant, New York City changed forever, along with the hearts and minds of the American people. The images from that tragic day are as horrific as they are iconic: smoke trailing from the twin towers, people running in fear on the ground below, and, eventually, two holes in the iconic city skyline.

While those photos accurately portray the trauma and heartbreak felt by all that day, there are others that tell more personal stories. One of the most gut-wrenching was taken by photographer Richard Drew of the Associated Press shortly after the second tower was hit. Known as “The Falling Man,” the photo ran in newspapers around the world only once, but it left a lasting impact on all who saw it.

“It’s a very quiet photograph,” Drew says about “The Falling Man.” “It’s not like a lot of other violent photographs from other disasters.”

Indeed, it is not. Other photos of the tragedy show flames, debris, and falling buildings, but “The Falling Man” shows the desperation of one man with no option but to leap from a skyscraper window. It also echoes the fate of over 200 people who chose to jump rather than to be trapped in the towers that day.

After the attacks, the New York City medical examiner’s office refused to call those who had jumped “jumpers.” That term had previously been used to define those who had planned to jump to their death, rather than those forced to by tragic circumstances.

Drew saw many deaths like that on the morning of Sept. 11. He recalled being told of the incident by a fellow photographer while working the first day of Fashion Week. Like many, Drew wasn’t aware of the seriousness of the attacks yet. He simply believed some kind of explosion had taken place. He soon received word that a plane had hit the towers, and he caught a train across town.

A Photo Seen Around The World

Drew remembered arriving by subway at the scene, coming up from the Chambers Street exit and watching helplessly as dozens of people began to fall from the top floors. His journalistic instincts immediately kicked in and he began to capture the chaos on film, snapping photos of those on the ground and in the air.