5 Years Later: Talking About the Jumpers



World Trade Center and W. Broadway, NY, NY 10048

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

Their hands were clasped. She had on a skirt suit and he had a tie around his neck. In my mind, their arms are down, right hand holding left between the balls of their hips. But I know this can’t be right. Another impossibility: her hair. It was long, brown, and fell below her shoulders. But her hair, like their arms, must have been stretching up above their heads, towards the bellowing flames and the clusters of pigeons circling, rushing madly, frantically into the heat like moths.

“Out of more than 200 people we’ve spoken to,” my interviewer says, “You are only one of two willing to talk about the jumpers.” I am at the bottom of Broadway, below the Wall Street bull, in a small room in the back of the September Space office. My interviewer is British and wears a white cotton mock turtleneck. He is conducting a study about how people evacuated from the World Trade Towers the morning of September 11, 2001. The study isn’t going very well—not enough people are coming forward to talk about that day, and his team is considering advertising to get more respondents. Our interview is on May 31, 2006, almost five years after the towers fell. “We know you can’t be the only two people to have seen this, but it is as though Americans just want to block it out,” he says.

I tell him I wish I could erase this couple from my memory, and all of the other faceless bodies that rained down from the top floors of the tower that searing blue morning. Instead, I feel like I am sitting in front of a fortune teller, constantly pulling up the same card: the Two Towers, with the childlike flames licking out of the tall buildings and people falling out at odd angles, hands splayed.

I go over the day in detail for my interviewer. I came out of the subway around 8:48 am and saw the flames of the first tower. I stopped by a fire hydrant; I stood on the left and a woman in pearls and high heels with honey-colored hair stood on the right. We watched trails of computer paper reams, like comets, slowly spinning through the air and flocks of white birds cluster at the mouth of the flames. There was no sound. All noise from above drifted away on the wind with the paper, kites of sound and fire, floating out into the sky.

The woman said or I said, “Was that–?” And we kept staring, eyes forgiving, pretending we hadn’t seen what we had seen. No we said, to each other, to ourselves. No no no no. These are people. We stood and watched the people, jumping from the windows so many hundreds of feet up, jumping down to us with arms stretched wide. We could see their ties, we could see their suit jackets, we could see their legs scrambling as if peddling imaginary bicycles.

Did you see airplane parts? No. Was the smoke very bad? No. Were you having trouble breathing? No. Was there metal on the ground? No. I feel like I’ve answered some of the questions wrong. I wonder if he wonders if I was really there. Am I some imposter, lying? Just trying to be part of something bigger than myself? He repeats some of what I said to him back to me, like a police investigator looking for holes. I told him I was on the 1 train, but I meant the C. I told him I was east of the towers, but he shows me on a map that I was north. I confessed that I stared, and would have stared for a long time at the bodies coming down if the policeman hadn’t screamed at me. Get out of here! he said, his face angry, accusing. What are you doing? Run! And I did.

After the interview is over, I walk to the corner of Vesey and Church Streets, where the interviewer told me I was standing. Not it, I think. I look at an unfamiliar building shrouded in black, half of its face ripped open, naked pilings and skeletons of rooms showing through the veil. The gloss of fresh blacktop bakes in the sun in front of the shrouded building, and a shiny red sculpture, like a big red balloon, winks from the center of a fountain. The construction pit surrounded by the chain link fence is fifteen feet in front of me. Then I see the fire hydrant. It happens slowly. I don’t remember the sculpture and the fountain because they were never there. I touch the cool top of the hydrant and look forward again. I wonder if the woman with the honey-colored hair has ever searched for this spot.

On this late May afternoon, almost five years later, I steady myself against the hydrant and listen to the low murmur of music coming from a radio on vendor’s table nearby. He sells hats and t-shirts. NYPD. FDNY. S, M, L, XXL. Trinkets are spread out across his table: cut glass crosses, key chains, pens, books. There are also three rows of small half-globes, shadowy shapes of twin towers inside each. From my perch beside the fire hydrant, I try hard not to imagine what might be raining down inside them.

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