Family members streamed into the newsroom clutching pictures of their loved ones, hopeful they were either alive under the rubble of the World Trade Center or injured and dazed in a Manhattan emergency room.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was design editor at the Staten Island Advance, a daily newspaper in New York City’s smallest borough, just eight miles from ground zero. To assist families with their grim searches, we posted and published dozens of headshots of “the missing” Staten Islanders who would eventually be confirmed as 274 of “the lost.” These newsroom visits over the next few weeks would add compassion to our coverage. As a lifelong New Yorker, I knew several victims — a grade-school classmate, a former neighbor, a cousin’s spouse.
Storytelling was a challenge for all newsrooms in the first 24 hours of chaos and confusion. Photos were slow to become available because of lockdowns and transmission problems. With a press time of 9 a.m. that Tuesday morning, I redesigned Page 1 three times during the run, adjusting the banner headline from “City Under Attack” to “U.S. Under Attack.”
From the rooftop of our four-story building, a staff photographer snapped an image of the first tower burning without realizing the second hijacked plane was visible in the frame. That became the dominant image for the Staten Island Advance — perhaps the only U.S. newspaper to cover the attacks in its regular Sept. 11 edition.
The next day’s edition was even more challenging to produce, with hundreds of photos from Lower Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania coming in on the wires and from our staff. I remember sorting through rows of images showing the conflagration and collapses, the first responders penetrating smoke and debris, the eyewitnesses gasping for air, the thousands of New Yorkers running to safety over bridges and through streets.
But one image immediately stood out: Richard Drew’s searing photo of what would become known as “The Falling Man.” I knew it had to be published and my colleagues agreed. I placed it on the cover page of our second news section, four columns by 15 inches.
The New York Times published “The Falling Man.” So did the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call. But most other newspapers chose not to publish it, fearing reader reaction.
“It’s a very quiet photograph,” Drew later told TIME magazine. “It’s not like a lot of very violent photographs from other disasters. There’s no blood, there’s no guts, there’s not anybody getting shot.” The man is falling head-first, without a struggle.
Still, it’s disturbing to see a person moments before certain death. Even today, many turn away from “The Falling Man” as they rightfully consider the stakeholders by asking, “What about his family, friends and co-workers who might recognize him?”
Reaction is strong because people can relate to The Falling Man’s situation, Drew explained. “They might have had to make the same choice he made.”
Graphic images have been published in American newspapers since the Civil War, when disfigured bodies of dead soldiers were laid out on a field following the Battle of Gettysburg. Other notable images include Eddie Adams’ photo of the execution of a Viet Cong officer on a Saigon Street (1968); “Napalm Girl” (1972) by Nick Ut; and “Fire Escape Collapse” (1976) by Stanley Forman.
More than 200 people jumped or fell from the Twin Towers on 9/11. For me, it was a critical part of the story that needed to be told with Drew’s powerful image. Today “The Falling Man” is a centerpiece in the ethics discussions I lead in my classes at Wagner College.
“I’ve never regretted taking that photograph at all,” Drew told TIME. “We don’t run away from the fire. We run to it, because it’s our job to record history.”
His selection as a 2023 Fellow of the Society is a testament to his work as an Associated Press photojournalist for more than 50 years, and to his courage and conviction on that fateful September day in Lower Manhattan.
SPJ is privileged to salute Richard Drew, along with Marvin Kalb, Soledad O’Brien, Dana Priest and Lesley Visser. Kudos to all for their powerful storytelling.
Claire Regan, 2022-23 national SPJ president, is an assistant professor of journalism at Wagner College in New York City.
Feature photo: At a Deadline Club Hall of Fame event in 2019, Claire Regan and AP photographer Richard Drew display the page she designed for the Sept. 12, 2001 edition of the Staten Island Advance, featuring his photo of “The Falling Man.” (Photo by Steve Friedman)