theoretically heroic


By now, many of you have already seen (or heard about) the picture of a man desperately trying to hoist himself out of the way of an oncoming New York subway train. His last few seconds were captured by a freelance photographer and splashed – of course – onto the front page of The New York Post with the headline “DOOMED”.

I’m not going to display it on my blog, but you can see the newspaper cover here. The photographer and the Post itself have been doubling down defending the picture, but I don’t know why the Post would bother – after all, they’ve been classless, racist, and beneath contempt for decades.

Perhaps discussing what is essentially a pre-snuff film is not helping things, but the picture does ask the immediate question: why didn’t the photographer help the guy up? R. Umar Abbasi said he was wearing too much gear, was too far away, wasn’t strong enough, and instead used his flash bulbs to warn the oncoming train. If you look at the picture, it seems like he was awfully close, but lenses and angles can be deceptive.

22 seconds passed between the time 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han was pushed onto the tracks and the train hit him. That is a fucking eternity in the heat of an adrenalized moment. If you were there, with the crazy homeless fucker still marauding about, and the train coming ever closer, what would you have done?

This incident strikes a chord with me for several reasons. The man was hit by the Q train, which was my train, on the southbound platform where Tessa and I stood every week on the way home from pre-marriage kickin’-the-tires couples therapy. I know that platform intimately, and used to watch the rats dodge the rodenticide boxes along the tracks.

The photograph freezes that moment in time when you can swoop in and save that poor man. It allows you the luxury of armchair quarterbacking those 22 seconds as you see fit, and it also recalls other moments in New York when you might have made a life-or-death decision.

Tessa swears that if I’d been working in the World Trade Center on 9/11, I would have ignored the intercom warnings to stay put, and gotten the fuck out of there. As it was, I’d worked across the street from the WTC until a few weeks before the attack, and was weirdly familiar with that environment as well.



the view out my office window, the day of the ticker-tape parade for the Yankees (blech) Nov 6, 2000

If I’d been in the 2nd tower, I’d like to think I’d have bolted during those 17 minutes before the 2nd plane hit. If there had been some massive explosion in the other tower, with debris and shit everywhere, and if I’d been up pretty high, the chances of me following the directions of a guy on an intercom would have been decidedly low.

I actually worked on the highest floor in the main part of the Woolworth Building, which afforded an “almost halfway up” view of the WTC towers a block away that was almost nauseatingly vertiginous. We were high enough up to feel somewhat celestial, but the towers were massively higher still. You cannot imagine how vulnerable it felt when you pressed your head against the window.

There is no way I would have stayed at my desk. Then again, there’s no way I would have been at my desk, because I would have been at least fifteen minutes late to work.

But this is all conjecture, an alternate reality where you get to bend space and time, and control all variables. We all want to think we would have made perfect decisions, because it gives us control over a fickle universe. It’s a childish response, without nuance, to suggest you would have done everything just right.

And this picture of a ill-omened man clawing to life at the edge of a subway platform brings up the same response. But man oh fucking man, it plays in my head right now, us standing on that same Q platform like we did every Tuesday, and like hell if I don’t see Tessa punching the crazy homeless fucker in the jaw while I hoist the man out of the trench just in goddamn time.


9 thoughts on “theoretically heroic

  1. Deb

    Whether or not I buy that the photographer was using his flash to warn the train or going on shutterbug instinct to freeze the moment in time doesn’t really matter. We wouldn’t have known about it if he hadn’t sold it. The Post is disgusting (redundant, I know) for having printed it, but in no moral court would I find this photographer Not Guilty for selling it to them, despite any dire financial straits he might be in. He didn’t sell it in a moment of life-or-death adrenaline. I suspect he went home, imported the photos, did some post-production, then started making phone calls to determine the best price he could get. It’s mercenary.

  2. Salem

    Historically, I take action quickly in unexpected emergencies, but if my child was with me, I fear that all of my focus would have turned to insulating her, and I would have let this man die. Even if there was no physical threat to her, i dont think i could have descerned that. Not by choice, reluctance, or hesitation, but in my daughters presence, I fear that I would only see her, and see her as the only one at risk. 22 seconds is a really long time.

  3. CM

    I don’t know if anyone could have really saved him (hoisting up a grown man could be a bit difficult, and didn’t I read that he may have had a few drinks?), but someone should have at least reacted to scream or do something. Is it our duty to help? It’s a philosophical question. I think moral law dictates that it is our duty, if we are able bodied. But as Salem points out, we sometimes have other people to take care of first (and if you’re with a child, you’re not going to be able to help that guy).
    I don’t really buy the photog’s explanation that he used his flashbulb to warn the train, but I am less critical of his split-second decision as I am of the Post for running the photo. Sometimes, a sensational photo or story can teach a lesson or inspire a necessary conversation, but this one doesn’t teach anything. It does inspire a conversation, true, but that could have happened anyway.
    If Phil Ochs were alive, he’d have a new verse:

  4. SWF

    OMG CM – you cited Phil Ochs, who is my favorite all time artist. I wrote my senior thesis on his life, career and impact on the world.
    Now, I am sitting here wondering what song you have linked to – praying that I am not about to be Rick Rolled.
    Oh, and Ian, this line “like hell if I don’t see Tessa punching the crazy homeless fucker in the jaw while I hoist the man out of the trench just in goddamn time” is epic. The words feel like an image from a graphic novel. I can almost see the ink lines showing the whoosh of motion.

  5. bridget

    everything about this sad story is off kilter. the photographer popping his flash in that moment rather than putting the camera down. that no one else seemed to react in those 22 seconds to help him either. that the doomed man approached, instead of avoided a stranger acting strangely. that he was drinking vodka at 11 something in the morning. the part of this story that breaks my heart is his wife calling his cell phone over and over, after their fight that morning, to patch things up.
    i do often wonder what i’d do in an instance such as this or others similar. i hope i’d be helping Tessa hold down the crazy fucker until the police came.

  6. Annie

    The horror of this story–not only the man’s death, but also the legacy of the photograph–is nearly unbearable. I can imagine no more revelatory emblem of our current culture–choosing to elevate the capture of an image over human life. It is not relevant to me that the photographer was not close enough to save or attempt to help the man. It’s just about those 22 seconds, and what it was possible for people to think about in that moment. The photographer is only one person, but surely we can all see that he took stock of his situation, and made a decision: “I’m going to **get this**” It cuts through the heart of our most basic trust as human beings: Will someone reach to help me when I’m knocked down in the street?
    Surely, most often, the answer is yes–someone will reach down to help me. I don’t dispute that this circumstance–an oncoming train and sunken tracks–held back many who might have otherwise rushed forward. I can only hope I have it within myself to offer help when it is so direly, horribly needed–something–making a human chain to pull him out? I doubt even one strong man could have done it with the physics and weight–but, something? Waving and screaming at the train? At least?
    I wasn’t there and we can never know everything that happened, but even the fact that one person present followed this instinct just leaves me with a heavier heart.

  7. Mark

    22 seconds seems plenty of time. Can’t be sure of the focal distance, though. But er wtf did he think his flash was going to do? Looks like the driver is looking dead at the man already. The photog was thinking PULITZER, the bastard. Even if I am with the kids, I’m all in, homeless madman or naught. They would expect nothing less of me.

  8. CM

    That sure sounds like an interesting thesis, SWF!
    Look out on the subway
    there’s a man stuck on the tracks
    We all need a minute
    to get our cameras from our bags
    and I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
    except for a small circle of friends


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