South Tower of World Trade Center collapsing

The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center towers killed over 2,996 people and produced a profound emotional impact in the lives of every American. Decades later, with retribution for the evil acts all but impossible, the 9/11 attacks are still a touchy subject among American citizens sparking anger, hurt, and shame.

Of the nearly 3,000 victims, it is estimated that 2,750 died from blunt impact injuries. Of those, fewer than 1,600 victims were identified leaving more than 1,100 people who simply vanished without a trace.  The reluctance to delve into the aftermath of the attacks leaves one important question unanswered, a question that has graced everyone’s mind at one time or another – what happened to the bodies of the missing 9/11 victims?

Identifying those who died outside the World Trade Center towers

Survivors fleeng New York City after 9/11 attackThe simplest victims to identify where those who died outside the World Trade Center towers – those who died in nearby buildings or on the streets below.

Some died well before the towers collapsed and were quickly removed from the scene. For instance, fireman Danny Suhr was killed as he made his way to the South Tower. A jumper landed on him, breaking his neck (compounding the tragedy, the priest who issued his last rites was later killed by falling debris).

Some died much later from dust exposure. After the collapse of the towers, a dense cloud of dust containing high levels of airborne pollutants covered Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. The dust settled to a depth of three inches in locations as far as six blocks from the World Trade Center. Between 60,000 and 70,000 responders were exposed.  The first death from World Trade Center dust occurred five months after the attacks. In the years following, several more deaths were directly linked to contaminants from the World Trade Center collapse.

The 9/11 jumper – stigma hinders identification

The Falling Man - iconic photo of 9/11 jumperNo subject is more distressing to Americans than the 9/11 jumpers – those who willingly jumped to their deaths in order to avoid being burned alive. Even the United States government has never attempted to determine how many 9/11 victims died from jumping vs. those who waited to be killed by the roaring flames.  When artist Eric Fischl exhibited his sculpture, Tumbling Woman, in New York’s Rockefeller Center, it was met with protests and threats (the exhibit was quickly shut down). When the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened, it housed a small display dedicated to the jumpers – tucked away in a tiny isolated alcove away from the museum’s main exhibit area. For various reasons, there is an overwhelming reluctance to dwell on the deaths of the jumpers.

Despite being airbrushed from history, we know that there were many jumpers.  In fact, witnesses on the ground say “it was raining bodies” and recall bodies hitting the ground with explosive, sickening wet thuds. People were dying all around the WTC towers and emergency personnel were helplessly unable to assist.  Firefighter Maureen McArdle-Schulman later recalled:


“They were choosing to die and I was watching them and shouldn’t have been. So me and another guy turned away and looked at a wall and we could still hear them hit.”

9/11 jumpers – coward’s death or act of courage

At 9:41 AM, in the upper floors of the North Tower, a jumper was photographed by Richard Drew. The next day, the iconic image appeared in newspapers throughout the country and came to be known as The Falling Man.

As the country’s fascination with the photo grew, the media began searching for the man’s identity. Dark-skinned, goatee beard, wearing an orange t-shirt under a white shirt, it was believed to be Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef working on the top floors of the North Tower. Hernandez’s family rejected the identification outright based on religious beliefs. His daughter angrily told reporters,

“He was trying to come home to us and he knew he wasn’t going to make it by jumping out a window.”

Right or wrong, many Americans view suicide as a coward’s death and a religious affront.  Unfortunately, this makes the 9/11 jumpers veiled victims of the tragedy.

On the other hand, others recognize that the act of jumping was a choice to die on their own terms – not an act of cowardice, but potentially an act of courage. 44-year-old Alayne Gentul’s body was found directly across the street from the towers – far enough to conclude that she jumped. Alayne had phoned her husband Jack Gentul while trapped inside the burning building. Thus, Jack knew not only her personality but her state of mind in the moments before she jumped. Jack says Alayne was not the sort of person to acquiesce to fear. She was a practical woman. He believes Alayne chose to die on her own terms.

“Jumping is something you can choose to do. To be out of the smoke and the heat, to be out in the air, it must have felt like flying.”

What happened to the 9/11 jumpers?

Hole in World Trade Center where Boeing 767 struck NorthTowerNobody knows for sure how many 9/11 victims jumped to their deaths. It is believed that around 200 died from jumping. The official count, derived from analysis of camera footage, is 104. Of those, 101 jumped from the North Tower – the first tower to be hit.

When firefighters first realized people were jumping from the towers, they made an announcement over the World Trade Center public address systems.

“Please don’t jump. We’re coming up for you!”

The message was never heard. The PA system was inoperable having been destroyed minutes earlier.

James Logozzo survived 9/11 and witnessed much of the event from the 72nd floor of the South Tower. Logozzo recalls seeing several flashes zipping past his window. It took several such flashes before he realized they were people falling from the floors above him. Logozzo recalls one jumper, a woman, who fell lying flat on her back staring upwards.

“It happened in slow motion.  She wasn’t screaming.  The look on her face was shock.”

The official investigative report contained a brief analysis of the jumpers’ deaths. It was determined that each victim fell for about 10 seconds before hitting the ground. In about 3 seconds, they would have reached a terminal velocity of 125 MPH (200 MPH if the jumper maintained an aerodynamic position, i.e. dove headfirst). Most jumped alone but photographs and video captured images of some holding hands as they fell. A few tried to survive the plunge by forming parachutes from materials such as table cloths and curtains. They found that no matter how tightly they held on, the velocity of their descent simply ripped the material from their hands.

World Trade Center on fire

Not all jumpers did so voluntarily

The first jumper leapt from the 93rd floor of the North Tower at 8:51 AM – only four minutes after the tower was struck. Some believe the jumper, unable to see through the smoke and debris, fell through the hole left by the Boeing 767. This was confirmed by several South Tower witnesses who saw people wandering near the opening “looking confused”. According to one witness:

“It looked like they were blinded by smoke and couldn’t breathe because their hands were over their faces. They would just walk to the edge where the jagged floor was and just fall out.”

Some jumpers fell as they tried to climb to another floor. One such jumper was recorded climbing from the 93rd to the 92nd floor. He lost his grip, possibly struck by another jumper, and fell to his death.

Finally, an unknown number fell as the towers collapsed. Hanging out windows, awaiting rescue, they lost their balance and fell when the towers began to topple.

Identification of those left inside the buildings – over 1,000 people vanish without a trace

World Trade Center tower collapseThe North Tower was hit first but the South Tower was the first to collapse. This gave people inside the South Tower very little time to react. Fortunately, despite Port Authority instructions to shelter in place, many had already evacuated the building.

Those left inside the Twin Towers before they fell would have experienced thick caustic smoke and extremely high temperatures. Analysts believe temperatures climbed as high as 1,800 degrees F, hot enough to melt steel. Indeed, there were reports of people having to stand on desks because the floors grew so hot.

Of the 2,800 people killed in the attack, only about 300 bodies were found intact. Of the 20,000 pieces of bodies found, 6,000 were small enough to fit into a test tube. The attack presented investigators with a case unlike any seen before. In all building collapses prior to the World Trade Center towers, bodies were recovered intact. Falling buildings crush victims – they don’t shred them or cause them to vanish altogether. In the Twin Towers attack, more than 1,100 victims simply disappeared – not one shred of skin or piece of bone could be found despite meticulous sifting efforts to recover the remains.

Aerial view of World Trade Center towers collapsingFor those that were identified, DNA testing was conducted mostly on shredded pieces of human flesh, pieces that were tucked away in protected areas away from the site, blown outward by the explosion and lifted away in the debris cloud to land on tops of other buildings, in sewer grates, some as far as a quarter-mile away.

What happened to the bodies of those who died inside the World Trade Center towers?

So what happened to the bodies of the 9/11 victims who simply vanished without a trace? The same thing that happened to the building structure, surface materials, office furniture, and “indestructible” black boxes from the two Boeing 767 airplanes. In a tumbling mass of debris, pieces accelerating at over 120 MPH towards earth, colliding and changing direction in unimaginable random patterns – the action acted like a high pressure grinder producing little more than powder from everything inside the towers. As one of the sifters remarked:

“The biggest piece of office furniture recovered from Ground Zero was a tiny fragment of a telephone keypad.”

Most everything inside the buildings was transformed into a mixture of tiny shards and micron-sized powder which floated through the air, much carried off and dumped into the Atlantic. The homogeneous dust recovered, sifted, and bucketed consisted of only 50% of the mass of the Twin Towers. In short, the bodies are nowhere, and everywhere at the same time.



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