9-11-01 Jumpers: A Suicidal Mystery

by Bill Brenner on September 7, 2013

I remember the photo well. It was a man falling to his death in a zen-like pose that haunted me for a long, long time. It haunted us all.

Mood music:

Yesterday, I came across an entire documentary based on that one photo. The program, like the photo, is called “The Falling Man.” Associated Press photographer Richard Drew snapped a series of pictures of a man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:41:15 a.m. during 9-11-01. He was one of about 200 people who jumped from the upper floors, presumably choosing to die this way because it was better than a slower death by smoke and fire.

The program includes all the haunting footage you would expect. But there was something more, something that shook me to the core:

The family of Norberto Hernandez, the man initially identified as the man in the photo, couldn’t accept that it was him, because as Christians, they believe suicide in any circumstance is a mortal sin — a ticket straight to hell.

Though the identity is still not 100 percent certain, it is now widely accepted that the falling man was Jonathan Briley, a 43-year-old employee of the Windows on the World restaurant.

The stigma around suicide is something I’ve wrestled with for nearly 15 years, since my best friend took his life. As a devout Catholic, I’m well aware of what the church says about suicide.

But I’m also a firm believer that when you’re in the grip of an out-of-control mental illness, you lose all sense of right and wrong. I think you enter a sort of dementia. Not in every case, but a lot of cases.

Then there’s the matter of people who know they are going to die and decide to go out there own way, as many 9-11 victims apparently chose to do.

Were they suicides, fitting the criteria of that mortal sin?

I would say no. I’m sure most of them didn’t wake up that morning with plans to die, especially by their own hand.

Terrorists sealed their fate, and, knowing they were going to die, made a choice on how to end it.

The episode:

We’ve heard a lot about courage that day, and there was plenty of it all around the world. Obviously, there were the firefighters, police officers and civilians who kept climbing the towers knowing they would probably die. They got other people out before thinking of themselves.

But there’s another kind of courage people often don’t think about. It’s the courage of accepting your fate and and dying with your dignity intact.

In the program, one survivor recalled looking up at the people hanging out the windows of the upper floors. She looked up, made the sign of The Cross, then lifted her arms and let go.

That’s not someone giving up and choosing suicide.

That’s someone with enough Faith to decide it’s ok to let go and let God.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa September 5, 2011 at 8:42 am

It’s utterly shameful that anyone would suggest that someone who jumped is in hell. People like that makes me almost sorry to be a Christian. Also, some of those people were driven by panic and in some cases they likely jumped as self preservation. Either way, shame on anyone who says someone is in hell, period.

shoutabyss September 5, 2011 at 8:49 am

I’m not a Catholic so this shout be taken with a grain of salt, but I don’t believe very much of what the Church has to say.

I was present when someone in my family also jumped. It was only from a highway overpass but that was enough.

This is a very thought-provoking post. I appreciate the obvious care that went into it.

Mary September 5, 2011 at 5:40 pm

I’m a Catholic, and I’m not 100% on what the Church would say about 9-11–there is this thing call “Positive and indirect suicide”
As the 10th year of that aweful day comes closer, all that I know is that I remember those choosing to jump on that awful day…it seems like that choice is very difficult for people to accept.
I remember thinking that maybe I would jump…and I would need someone to take my hand and go with me…and how wonderful that would be…for a soul to help me take that leap…With God’s Strength…
I still think that these images should be shown so that WE – the collective we – NEVER FORGET! That people went to work…and didn’t come home…and that WE are forever changed…all images keep that real…

Larry Walsh September 6, 2011 at 2:38 am

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I ended up watching a documentary of minute-by-minute account of what happened on 9/11. Until now, I had no idea that more than 200 people willing jumped from the towers. I knew people had jumped or had fallen, but never the number. No matter which way you cut it, these people faced an unbelievable choice and a horrific death. The torment probably wasn’t in the decision or the leap, but in the descent. As the earth rose to meet them, they must have been consumed by thoughts of life, not death. There is no sin in what they did. Nor was their choice an act of desperation. It was simply a choice that none of them ever wanted to make.

Andy September 10, 2011 at 3:49 am

Obviously, jumping out of the building was the preferable option to what was happening inside; and I’m sure even in that situation it wasn’t an easy thing to do. But as for whether or not we can label it as “suicide” is irrelevant.
I’m not interested in what the church has to say about a given topic, I’m interested in what The Bible says, what God says in His Word. It does not say that suicide is the unforgivable sin. Jesus died One time to abolish sin once-and-for-all. If an individual has accepted that Forgiveness for themselves, then Grace would cover that final act, be it righteous or otherwise.
And if any of those people had not accepted it, God still knows each one’s heart. He has a plan and He did not/ has not forgotten them.
Where they end up is not our call, it’s between them and God.

Alex February 6, 2017 at 2:57 am

Personally, I have to go with Andy’s comment that its not our call. Its between them and God. The subject of suicide is, for me, one of the most open to interpretation subjects in religion. Anyone can come up with several reasons why any suicide is an unforgiveable sin or not. The only one with the answer to that is God. Not you, me or even the church.

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