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Redefining 9/11 Jumpers

Graphic by Zac Fox

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, left a scar on the memories of Americans. Those who witnessed the attacks, whether firsthand or on television, remember haunting images of those trapped inside the buildings jumping to their deaths. 9/11 has forever impacted American society, and the word suicide continues to carry the same heavy cultural weight.

Margaret Battin, a professor of philosophy and internal medicine at the University of Utah, has written multiple books on cultural and religious views on suicide. She has helped compile The Ethics of Suicide Digital Archive — a project of the U’s J. Willard Marriott Library and Oxford University Press. According to her, suicide in the U.S. is often defined by the purpose behind the death.

“Consider the man who straps a bomb to his chest and walks into a crowded market — we call him a ‘suicide bomber,’” Battin explained. “Consider another man who falls on a grenade to save his buddy — we call him a ‘hero.’ Yet the mechanism of death is the same — explosive injuries to the chest. But the intentions are very different.”

On 9/11, nearly 3,000 people ranging from 2- to 85-year-olds died in terrorist attacks perpetrated by the extremist group Al Qaeda. Attacks were carried out in New York City, Washington, D.C. and a field just outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when 19 men hijacked four commercial planes, American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 93.

The collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City left 2,752 dead. Of those, it is estimated that approximately 200 jumped from the upper floors of the buildings.

The rarely spoken of 9/11 “jumpers,” some believe, chose to die by falling rather than being burnt alive or asphyxiated by smoke. Images were captured of the victims in mid-air, such as in Associated Press photographer Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man.” The emotive pictures sparked a debate surrounding the classification of these deaths. To Battin, the leap does not fit into the category of suicide. While the mechanism of the deaths may typically fall under suicide, Battin said the victims’ intentions lead her to label them otherwise.

“So think of the 9/11 jumpers in this way — do we stress the mechanism of their deaths or the perfectly understandable, reasonable intentions they had in escaping a much worse death by incineration?” Battin questioned.

The topic of suicide is generally taboo in the U.S., a country which is heavily influenced by Christian religion. In coverage of 9/11, news organizations chose not to show footage of the jumpers in their reports. People across the country often deny that people jumped, saying they were instead thrown from the building by the flames and explosions.

“To ask whether the 9/11 jumpers were suicides is to trade on the very negative connotations associated with the term suicide and to imply that they did something wrong or perhaps even sinful,” Battin said.

Jumped or forced, falling from the top floors of the World Trade Center to the ground took less time than it takes most people to tie their shoe. With speeds ranging from an estimated 125 mph up to 200 mph, the average descent took approximately 10 seconds. Battin believes that those who fell weren’t desperate to die, they were seeking an escape.

“It seems simply wrong to me to call them suicides when that term brings with it so many negative connotations.”

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Comments (11)

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  • L

    LaurenSep 4, 2022 at 6:36 pm

    My husband, a retired FDNY Captain said it plainly: The fire makes the decision for you.

  • R

    rickMay 15, 2022 at 3:55 pm

    I think jumping may actually be braver, I mean doesn’t smoke knock you out pretty fast? Jumping requires taking an action, is a huge commitment of recognition of reality of situation and takes the steering wheel into your own hands. I think it shows courage.

  • E

    EggnogOct 4, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    They were murdered as someone said. They didn’t commit suicide, they chose the seemingly least worst way to die in the situation. I imagine many just simply instinctively had to escape the heat, their bodies could not stand it. But the principle cause of death was the conscious decision by highjackers to fly a jet airliner through their office window. If any highjacker had by some miracle survived, he would have been rightfully charged with the murder of all those who were forced to jump.

  • J

    Joe BSep 14, 2021 at 6:51 pm

    “Jumpers” is probably an incorrect descriptor—many people were forced out or fell out in their desperation to get away from the smoke and fire.

    I will say that I don’t appreciate, nor do I understand the numerous Christians who have surfaced in the years after 9/11 to make a defense of the jumpers by saying something to the effect of “they didn’t jump [because suicide is sinful].” (1) who cares what you (or some imagined deity) thinks of suicide and (2) it’s incredibly ignorant to even raise that point in the first place. it’s painful enough for families coping with the loss of a loved one, they don’t need you reminding them that suicide is sin according to [insert your stupid religion].

  • G

    Gerrit BurgerJul 25, 2021 at 7:18 am

    NOBODY HAS ANY IDEA WHAT THOSE PEOPLE WERE FACING! If my wife or child was trapped in the buildings, I would rather see them “FALL” than smother or burn to death. If I had to talk on the phone to my wife and she said it was absolutely unbearable, my first thought would be to make her suffering less, no matter how much it might hurt me. I would have told her to close her eyes and just step out of the building. If People could have had access to the roof, many apparently “jumpers” could have been saved. But some City Officials decided to keep the roof locked against vandalism of equipment. That was more important than people’s lives. Money is always more important than lives. The valuable “STUFF” on the roof could have been protected in many ways if they just used a little imagination . But all that aside, I can not see anyone of those +- 200 people committing suicide willingly. They had absolutely no way out, except to get relieve. There is another way to explain desperate actions taken in the 911 tradegy. “If someone has a gun pressed against your temple and said you have to put your hand into a pot of boiling oil, if you pull your hand out of the oil in less than a minute, he will shoot you in the head. Obviously you’ll pull your hand out, but does that mean you’ve committed suicide? Nobody “JUMPED” with 911. The circumstances forced them to make a long agonising suffering decision or choose a more humane way of ending their lives. To me “JUMPED” when describing 911 is like a curse on those poor people. It blackens their character, their names and their families. I, in those circumstances witch I believe was absolutely horrendous, would have just stepped out and seek freedom and fresh air, even if it lasted only 10 seconds. Please do not judge what you can not imagine. The word “JUMP” at 911 is the worst swearword you may ever say again. My hat will be off to those poor people forever.

  • E

    EmilyJun 3, 2021 at 12:14 pm

    This article addresses a topic that I feel has been avoided and little discussed for a variety of reasons. I agree that Americans definitely avoid the topic of suicide in general and in this particularly sensitive situation even more so. However, I wonder if going out of a window in order to breathe or avoid burning to death could be classified as such. The human body will do what is necessary to avoid harm and pain. I can certainly understand going out any route that would lead to relief of extreme heat or inability to breathe. Personally of all the victims that day those persons touched me the most. They were certainly faced with hell on earth and in the face of it made the best choice they could. It was of comfort to me knowing the agony was over for them. Sometimes I have pondered if I would feel that way about it if it were my loved one. I have no answers to that. I do know I wouldn’t feel any shame or fear from a higher power. In fact I think there is a strength in taking some kind of control back in such an uncontrollable situation.

  • J

    JennaJun 19, 2020 at 6:16 am

    Thank you so much, Diane and Mary. This event occurred when I was almost 15, and when I came downstairs that morning and everyone who lived there were gathered in the living room, silent, staring at the TV, I wondered, what the heck?? When I looked at the TV, they were watching live coverage of the Twin Towers attacks, and I honestly said aloud, “What movie are you guys watching?”. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. And even though I finally realized, okay, it’s all over the news, it must be real, I felt numb and frozen inside. I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and I’ve never really been anywhere, and I admit it took awhile to hit me, but it did, and I always was wondering about those who came out of the windows… I have had severe depression, anxiety, and horrible panic attacks all my life, and I know how being suicidal feels, and even tried it…and I KNOW that those people did NOT commit suicide! Who the hell goes to work in the morning and suddenly DECIDES to jump out a window?? No one. I think they chose not to suffer. Thank you ladies, for recognizing the issue of mental health, as I still suffer every day in my own mind. Thank you.

  • F

    FrankieFeb 15, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    Surely these people made an educated decision do you stay where you are for certain death or, do you make a decision that MAY have a slightly higher chance of Survival? We have to remember we are looking at these events with hindsight and time to consider. These people had to make a choice based on limited to no information, only what they were experiencing at that moment. These people are innocent victims. There. Can be no shame
    or judgement on their actions . the only shame is on those making judgements upon them

  • M

    MaryDec 14, 2019 at 10:12 pm

    I don’t believe suicides resulting from mental illness should be thought of in any different way. They are desperately trying to escape the pain and fire in their minds – which may feel to them as a real fire coming after them. They just want to escape the pain, and many of them are not in their right minds, have panic attacks, or psychotic attacks. Should we judge these people? Should we judge your father? If we are so judgmental, we are worse than any of these suffering souls. Shame on us! The stigma must be lifted, because, like it or not, suicide is on the rise at an astonishing rate. We don’t need to say we are Christians. We need to ACT like Christians!

  • J

    JimaSep 9, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    I was 11 when I watched the live coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Centers. I watched the second plane hit and I watched those people jump. They were people with families and people who loved and cared for them. I’m a Christian but I do not believe those souls are going to hell for making the decision to jump. I also do not believe mental illness played a part. I lost my son’s father to suicide. He hung himself from a tree with a belt. He had mental issues and made the decision to take his own life. I do not, and will never, believe that they just wanted to end their lives. I believe in my heart that they just wanted to escape and maybe they thought they could survive. We cannot imagine what they were going through or what was running through their minds. I do not call it suicide. I call it escaping a situation that didn’t have a positive outcome. Either they were going to burn, suffocate, be obliterated when the tower fell, or jump. There was no right way to die. Even now, 18 years later, I think about the almost 3,000 people killed and pray for their families and loved ones. They did not choose to die that day. That decision was made for them by men who did make the decision to kill themselves when they hijacked those planes, crashed them into those towers and the Pentagon. To me, it’s not suicide, it’s murder!

  • D

    DianeNov 9, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    True that these jumpers don’t fit into the same category as traditional suicide. However, is it also incorrect to attach “so many negative connotations” to suicide? Our culture could do better to understand and support those with mental illness, rather than stigmatize it. True that “a country which is heavily influenced by Christian religion” has a hard time thinking outside of what they have been taught, even if it means ignoring mental illness, placing judgement on those who die this way, thus being un-Christlike. Wholeheartedly agree, that the jumpers fit into a different category. And wholeheartedly feel that our society needs to start looking at suicide in a different light and help those who are suffering.