The Story Behind the Haunting 9/11 Photo of a Man Falling From the Twin Towers

Sep 08, 2016

The most widely seen images from 9/11 are of planes and towers, not people. Falling Man is different.

The photo, taken by Richard Drew in the moments after the September 11, 2001, attacks, is one man’s distinct escape from the collapsing buildings, a symbol of individuality against the backdrop of faceless skyscrapers. On a day of mass tragedy, Falling Man is one of the only widely seen pictures that shows someone dying.

The photo was published in newspapers around the U.S. in the days after the attacks, but backlash from readers forced it into temporary obscurity. It can be a difficult image to process, the man perfectly bisecting the iconic towers as he darts toward the earth like an arrow.

Falling Man’s identity is still unknown, but he is believed to have been an employee at the Windows on the World restaurant, which sat atop the north tower. The true power of Falling Man, however, is less about who its subject was and more about what he became: a makeshift Unknown Soldier in an often unknown and uncertain war, suspended forever in history.

Revisiting 9/11: Unpublished Photos by James Nachtwey

The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went into slow motion. Everything was floating. I thought I had all the time in the world to make the picture, and only at the last moment realized I was about to be taken out."
The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went into slow motion. Everything was floating. I thought I had all the time in the world to make the picture, and only at the last moment realized I was about to be taken out."James Nachtwey for TIME
The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went into slow motion. Everything was floating. I thought I had all the time in the world to make the picture, and only at the last moment realized I was about to be taken out."
“Something unbelievable had just happened, and it was about to get much worse.”
“There was a sense of shock. The firefighters clicked into a kind of professional default and did what they knew how to do, in the face of impossible odds.”
“So many firefighters died that day. I think this picture recognizes their loss, and honors it. Their sacrifice was monumental. It will forever be remembered.”
“Conventional means of dealing with emergencies were completely overwhelmed. Even with their equipment destroyed the firefighters continued to work. It was much more than an exercise in futility. It was an act of bravery and nobility.”
“It looked like the set of a science fiction film about the apocalypse.”
“I’d been standing directly beneath the north tower when it collapsed. That I survived seems almost miraculous. I was inside that massive cloud of smoke and dust, suffocating and blinded. I kept moving and eventually saw light emanating in the distance.”
“Thousands of people had died, but they weren’t visible. The horrible fact sank in that everyone who’d been inside was buried beneath thousands of tons of steel and concrete. An unspoken understanding hung in the air – it was already too late.”
“The unbelievable had happened, and any effort seemed futile compared the magnitude of the event. I’m not sure there was even a place to attach their fire hoses.”
“The firemen could only put one foot in front of the other and try not to give in to despair.”
“That a car had been turned upside down looked bizarre, but more important was the look on the fireman’s face. His eyes were rimmed in black, and he had a thousand-yard stare.”
“Firefighters do a job that sometimes requires them to put their lives on the line. That day their courage and commitment were severely tested, and they paid an enormous price.”
“Tons of paper had flown through the air when the towers collapsed. Some of it had been blown through the broken windows of nearby buildings.”
“A group of firemen had raised a flag in the midst of the ruins. It was an expression of defiance, of being unbowed, a tribute to their fallen comrades.”
“Through the years my work has been fueled by anger at injustices and atrocities, but always in another country. Now it had happened in my own country, my own city, my own backyard, and the sense of anger had an edge that was even more personal.”
“Even as the sun was going down, firemen continued to fan out through the vast wreckage. By then, I’m sure they realized there was a slim chance of finding anyone still alive, but if they could find only one, they’d give it everything they had.”
The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went
... VIEW MORE

James Nachtwey for TIME
1 of 16

Follow TIME LightBox on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.