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.
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.
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.