On July 22, 1975 in Boston, a 19-year-old and her 2-year-old goddaughter were trapped in a burning building. A firefighter shielded them from the flames as a fire ladder inched closer. Then the fire escape collapsed. The woman died from her injuries, but her two-year-old goddaughter survived because she landed on the woman’s body. It’s tragic, going from the hope of immediate rescue to a deadly fall in seconds.
The photograph, which is a part of a series, shows 19-year-old Diana Bryant and her 2-year-old goddaughter Tiare Jones falling from the collapsed fire escape of a burning apartment on Marlborough Street in Boston. The fire escape at the fifth floor collapsed as a turntable ladder was extending to pick up the two at the height of approximately 50 feet (15 meters). Bryant died from her injuries, but Jones survived the fall, which was softened by her landing on Bryant’s body. The photo also shows falling potted plants.
This photo, taken by Stanley Forman, is officially titled “Fire Escape Collapse“. This is how he described the photography to the BBC:
It was 22 July 1975. I was about to leave the offices of the Boston Herald for the day. A call came in about a fire in one of the city’s older sections of Victorian row houses. I rushed to the house and followed one of the engines to the fire. I ran to the back of the building, because on the way there they kept yelling for a ladder truck because there were people trapped in the building on the fire escape.
I ran to the back of the building and when I looked up there was a woman and a child on the fire escape and they were basically leaning at the furthest point from the building because of the heat of the fire behind them. In the meantime, a firefighter called Bob O’Neil had climbed on to the front of the building on the roof and saw the pair on the fire escape. He lowered himself on to the fire escape to rescue them.
I took a position where I could photograph what I thought was an impending routine rescue. The ladder went up to pick them up – they were about 50ft (15m) up. Mr O’Neill had just told Diana Bryant that he was going to step onto the ladder and asked her to hand the baby to him. Mr O’Neil was reaching out for the ladder when suddenly the fire escape gave way. I was shooting pictures as they were falling – then I turned away. It dawned on me what was happening and I didn’t want to see them hit the ground. I can still remember turning around and shaking.
It transpired that I wouldn’t have seen them hit the ground as they fell behind a fence where the bins were. When I did turn around I didn’t see them but I saw the firefighter still clinging onto the ladder with one arm, like a monkey, with all his gear. He hoisted himself back up the fire escape to safety. They say the woman broke the child’s fall. The woman died later that night.
The photographs were awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography as well as World Press Photo of the Year. The photo was taken with a motorized camera. It was first published in the Boston Herald and then in newspapers around the world to much hostile reader reaction. The media was charged with invading the privacy of Diana Bryant and pandering to sensationalism. The picture also prompted officials in Boston to rewrite its laws regarding fire escape safety. Fire safety groups around the country used the photo to promote similar efforts in other cities.