Sep. 11, 2006

For the Falling Man

by Annie Farnsworth

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Poem: "For the Falling Man" by Annie Farnsworth from Bodies of Water, Bodies of Light. © Annie Farnsworth. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

For the Falling Man

I see you again and again
tumbling out of the sky,
in your slate-grey suit and pressed white shirt.
At first I thought you were debris
from the explosion, maybe gray plaster wall
or fuselage but then I realized
that people were leaping.
I know who you are, I know
there's more to you than just this image
on the news, this ragdoll plummeting—
I know you were someone's lover, husband,
daddy. Last night you read stories
to your children, tucked them in, then curled into sleep
next to your wife. Perhaps there was small
sleepy talk of the future. Then,
before your morning coffee had cooled
you'd come to this; a choice between fire
or falling.
How feeble these words, billowing
in this aftermath, how ineffectual
this utterance of sorrow. We can see plainly
it's hopeless, even as the words trail from our mouths
—but we can't help ourselves—how I wish
we could trade them for something
that could really have caught you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 2001 terrorists flew two planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, causing both towers to collapse. In the hours after the collapse, healthcare officials in New York City expected that they would have to handle a huge surge of injured patients. They asked people to donate blood, and they took volunteers to help staff makeshift hospital stations around the city. But it turned out that very few of the survivors of the attack had suffered serious injuries. And when cleanup at the site of the attack began, there were almost no identifiable bodies of victims. Almost everything had been buried.

For weeks, no one knew how many people had died in the attack. It was as though thousands of people had just vanished. Relatives of the victims had no way of knowing if their loved ones were even dead. Missing-person posters began to appear all over the city, around the entrances of hospitals, on storefronts, bus shelters, and lampposts, asking for help in locating the missing people in the photos. It was believed that some of the victims might be unconscious in unknown hospitals, or wandering the streets in the wake of the attack. The posters kept appearing, even days after it was clear that few, if any, of the missing would be found. Many of the photos were wedding pictures, or pictures at birthday parties, or pictures of the victim holding a new baby.

Journalists at The New York Times quickly realized that there wouldn't be an official list of the dead for weeks or even months, and so on September 14th, a half-dozen reporters divided up 100 missing-person fliers and began calling the phone numbers on the fliers, interviewing the friends and relatives. And on September 15, 2001, the Times began publishing portraits in a section called "Among the Missing." The title was eventually changed to "Portraits of Grief." The journalists involved decided that they would try to write portraits of every victim of the attack whose family they could reach. And they decided that the stories would focus on how the victim lived, not how he or she died.

The portraits were shorter than the average Times obituary, at about 150 words, and they skipped things like college degrees, jobs held, and names of surviving family members. They just tried to capture some detail or anecdote that would express each person's individuality. There was a firefighter who wore size 15 boots; a man who put toothpaste on his wife's toothbrush when he got up before her, almost every day; a grandmother who wore pink rhinestone-studded sunglasses and a metallic gold raincoat.

Ultimately, 143 reporters worked on the project, and they managed to write about 1,910 of the 2,749 victims. They would have written about every victim, but some families didn't want to participate or couldn't be found. The portraits were collected in the book Portraits 9/11/01 (2002) (buy now). Two other Times reporters, Jim Dwyers and Kevin Flynn, set out to tell the story of the final moments inside the Twin Towers, and the result was their book 102 Minutes (2005). (buy now)

The New York Times won six Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the terrorist attacks that year, including one for the section of the paper devoted to the Portraits of Grief. It was the first time in the Pulitzer's history that any paper won more than three awards in a year.

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