For two hours Monday morning, the body lay where it fell in the middle of a Center City sidewalk, a crumpled heap of tragedy covered by a thin white sheet.

The crowd that gathered, and lingered, to gawk and gasp and take photographs on cell phones, knew nothing about the man other than his violent end.

Everyone assumed it was a suicide and that he'd leapt to his death from the Loews Philadelphia Hotel on the corner of 12th and Market.

Neither the police nor the hotel management could confirm that, or anything about the case, yesterday afternoon. But the lack of official word did not stop the public from drawing their own conclusions, and responding, at times, in intensely personal ways.

"I think they should have closed the whole area off," said Chris Johnson, a painter working in the neighborhood yesterday. "That could be somebody's loved one."

A passerby positioned himself to get a good view of the body and snapped a photo on his cell phone. "Yo!" came an angry voice from the crowd. "Show some respect, man!"

"He jumped from up there," several onlookers said, pointing skyward and cranking their heads back as far as they could to see the sharp line where the 33-story building confronted the morning's fast-moving clouds.

"It's a white dude," someone said. She could tell from the clenched fist and the foot, with a sock dangling off the toes, that lay exposed, protruding at an unnatural angle. From the rise in the sheet, they guessed he was heavyset. And a few witnesses said his hair was peppered gray.

The wind tugged stubbornly at the makeshift shroud, but the man's white sneakers -- had they fallen off during his descent? Did someone take them off? -- kept it tethered to the concrete.

"I saw something coming down," said Mary Frame, a 49-year-old housewife from the Northeast, who was walking north on 12th Street just before 10 a.m., when she witnessed the man's last sentient seconds. "Man, he hit the ground. You could hear the thump a block away."

"It sounded like a gunshot," said Shamaine Byrd, a retail sales representative, who was working at the T-Mobile store on the corner. Some of her co-workers saw the man land feet-first then bounce before collapsing.

As the police arrived, setting up yellow caution tape, the staff tried to get on with their business, attending to customers. But every few minutes, they would turn around to catch a glimpse of the body across the street.

"You want to stop looking," Byrd said, "But you just can't."

Outside, a young mother, carrying her baby wrapped in a pink blanket, leaned up against a wall directly across the street from the dead man and stayed for a good ten minutes, staring.

An elderly woman, who would give only her first name, Kathy, said she was on her way to church and stopped for a moment to cross herself and give a blessing. "He might have lost his job," she ventured. "Maybe it was the economy."

Others walked by, tossing comments to no one in particular.

"Somebody was tired of living."

"That's crazy!!"

"Some people just can't take it."

A few feet from the police barrier, a young man, who said he had just been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, began to weep. "I've thought of doing that," he said.

Nearby, another woman, who gave her name as Nadine, said, "I'm so upset. They have to do something about mental health in this city. He should have been helped before this happened."

About 15 minutes before the medical examiner's van arrived to take the body away, David Solow, kitchen manager from the Hard Rock Cafe, and his colleague, William Cameron, a busboy, walked across Market Street to leave flowers beside the body.

The two men said they witnessed the man's fall.

"We saw a ladder on the ledge up there," said Solow. "We thought he was a window cleaner."

"It's such a tragedy. And at the holidays," said Cameron.

In an attempt to bring some momentary grace to the gruesome scene, the men said, they'd gone to Reading Terminal to buy the bouquet. Police, however, turned them away, telling them, "Not yet."

So they headed back to work with the pink carnations and the unopened card that read, "You will be missed."

Contact Staff Writer Melissa Dribben at mdribben@phillynews.com or 215 854 2590