The falling man

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 24.03.10

Never seen before, not on the beloved street where Calcutta goes to live its dreams.

A man falling like a leaf, death driving up from behind and devouring from below.

Burnt, scarred and no stranger to adversity, the city of tinderboxes had seen bigger blazes. Just another fire, it looked initially, with the attendant commotion, people running helter-skelter.

Then, Park Street froze.

Something — no, someone — is tumbling out of one of the high windows. A human body, possibly alive but crashing like deadweight.

A shriek explodes like a siren, then drowns in a chorus of horror-struck voices.

The man hits the ledges on his way down, once, twice, before hitting the ground.

The descent takes only a few seconds, beginning and ending with the abruptness of a whiplash.

Once the shock ebbs, another image bobs up — one we caught on the cold glare of the television screen on September 11, 2001.

As the twin towers of the World Trade Center came down, one of the free-falling bodies, photographed by Richard Drew, became an enduring image of 9/11. We still do not know the identity of the person who took that fatal plunge, although he is now referred to as The Falling Man.

The Falling Man has been the subject of immense speculation, and was featured in two novels, one by Jonathan Safran Foer and the other by Don DeLillo.

The awful moment of the man jumping off Stephen Court will sear itself into the city’s collective memory of Park Street.

Never seen before, never likely to fade away.

The Mind

What must have gone through the minds of the people who jumped, possibly realising that it could be a leap to death?

Growing anxiety giving way within minutes to a sense of utter helplessness and desperation may have pushed the people to gamble with gravity, psychologists and medical experts said.

Five among those who jumped about 50 feet from the ground died.

All those who jumped probably tried to escape burning by taking a chance with a fall, said Namita Kaith, a counselling psychologist in New Delhi. “Their anxiety would have generated a natural physiological response — a flight-or-freeze response,” she said. “Each jump represented a flight away from the fire and possible burning — a desperate action to exit a bad situation they could not control.”

Calcutta psychiatrist P.S. Biswas listed three reasons: some chance of survival, even though they might be injured; jumping out would be less painful than suffering burns; and extreme panic.

The Body

Is there a safe height? “There’s really nothing like a safe height beyond eight or 10 feet,” said Amit Gupta, a surgeon at the Apex Trauma Centre of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. “An elderly person may fall while standing — and break a hip.”

Free fall — not retarded by a wire or a ledge — leads to what doctors call blunt injuries where the force of impact is spread across a wide area over the body. Even in free fall, a person may instinctively turn to fall on his hands. Such a fall will injure the hands, upper limbs, and shoulders but, Gupta said, may protect the vital organs such as the brain.

Someone who lands on the feet would hurt the lower limbs and the spine and experience a shearing force on the abdominal organs, Gupta said. Ribs could fracture and internal organs experience significant displacement when the back or chest strikes the ground.

Head injuries are among the commonest causes of death after uncontrolled falls. One medical study has suggested that a fall beyond 15 metres usually leads to injuries in at least two or three body regions.