Before the spread of memes throughout the Internet, rumors and unsubstantiated claims about the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. fluorished through forwarded e-mails, as users sought to share information they thought had been overlooked by news outlets.
The following is a roundup of some of the more heavily-circulated claims that were passed around after the attacks:
The ‘Tourist of Death’
A 25-year-old Hungarian man found himself becoming “Internet famous” as a photograph depicting him on the World Trade Center circulated heavily; readers contacted us asking about Peter Guzli more than any other rumor that surfaced after the attacks.
However, his brush with fame ended within months, thanks to his own friends. Read our coverage of Guzli’s story here.
Michael Hingson and His Guide Dog
Michael Hingson and his guide dog, Roselle, garnered attention after they were confirmed as survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center, with the Labrador Retriever guiding Hingson — who has been blind since birth — down from the 78th floor of Tower One.
“Invariably, I’ll be in an airport and someone will say, ‘I know you — 9/11, the guy with the dog, right?'” Hingson told the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 2014.
By then the pair had been interviewed by Larry King for CNN and Roselle was given the AKC’s Award for Canine Excellence. Hingson and his wife were at Roselle’s side when she passed away in 2011 at the age of 14.
For his part Hingson has parlayed his experience into a career as a public speaker.
‘Halloween May Not Be So Happy’
One of the more insidious rumors that spread via email took advantage of not only anxiousness following the attacks but xenophobia.
The chain message, often shared under the subject line “Definitely something to consider,” read:
My friend Colleen arrived for a facial when FBI agents were leaving Murad on Sunday, October 7, 2001. They were there to interrogate a girl who worked there to find out if she knew anything. The reason for their lead was she was best-friends with a girl who was dating an Arab man, who disappeared and was involved in the t! errorist attacks on the WTC. He disappeared this summer and left her a note, saying the following in the effect of:
“I have to go away and will not be able to see you again. Please do me a favor and do not fly in any planes on September 11, 2001 nor shop at any shopping malls on October 31, 2001 ……… “
Don’t know about you but I live across the street from a shopping mall, and my in-laws do too. Given my daughter is usually at their house on a Wednesday afternoon, right near the mall, am thinking of where else to go. Halloween may not be so Happy. Please send this to anyone that you know.
Let’s hope this isn’t for real, but since it was actually left in a letter to a loved one from one of the people involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001, I am not taking it too lightly.
The chain letter was shared often enough to be covered in books about disinformation, such as Veronique Campion-Vincent’s 2017 analysis Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend. Vincent reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not find the claim of a “shopping mall” attack credible.
A Newfoundland Town Becomes a Refuge for Stranded Travelers
After the attacks led to the closure of U.S. airspace, between 7,000 and 8,000 travelers found their flights diverted to Gander, a town of around 10,000 people in the Canadian providence of Newfoundland. Residents there and in neighboring towns opened facilities and offered other amenities to the stranded travelers for four days after the attacks.
“They welcomed us like they had known us forever,” one visitor, Shirley Brooks-Jones of Ohio, told NPR five years later. “And essentially, they closed down all those little towns. The schools were closed. They closed up all of the non-essential businesses and everything. Everybody from the older people to the middle-aged, the school kids, even the little tiny kids, they all came to help the plane people. They brought in towels and washcloths and sheets and pillows and blankets from their own homes because we didn’t have our luggage.”
To repay their generosity, Brooks-Jones took up a collection drive to offer scholarships to high school students in nearby Lewisporte. As of 2019, when the town honored her with an award, the scholarship program had awarded more than $66,000 to nearly 300 students.
The story of Brooks-Jones and her fellow travelers was not only featured in a documentary, it became the basis for a musical, Come From Away, which will resume performances on Broadway in New York City.
The USS New York
Eight years after the attacks, the USS New York’s connection to the city made news after confirmation that 7.5 tons of steel taken from the wreckage of the World Trade Center were used as part of its construction.
“It sends a message of America becoming stronger as a result, coming together as a country and ready to move forward as we make our way through the world,” Navy Cmdr. Quentin King said after the ship returned to New York for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial.
Two other ships bear a similar connection to the attacks; the USS Arlington, which was named after the location of the Pentagon, and the USS Somerset, named for Somerset County in Pennsylvania, where 40 people died after passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 — which had also been hijacked by terrorists aligned with the ones who attacked the WTC and the Pentagon — seized control of the flight and forcing it to crash.
“The 40 souls who perished on the plane left a great deal behind,” Capt. Dave Kurtz said in September 2020. “They left spouses, children, and grandchildren who miss them dearly. They left successful businesses, promising careers, and a lifetime of dreams they will never have the chance to fulfill. They left something else — a legacy of bravery and selflessness that will always inspire America—and that inspires our crew to act with selfless courage.”
The Unpatriotic Pepsi Can
In 2002 the Pepsi soda brand found itself being targeted by jingoistic Internet users accusing it of not showing enough patriotism in a special can, circulating a chain letter (which later became a graphic) saying:
Don’t buy the new Pepsi can coming out with pics of the Empire State building and the Pledge of Allegiance on them. Pepsi left out 2 little words in the pledge “Under God.” Pepsi said they didn’t want to offend anyone. So if we don’t buy any Pepsi products, they will not be offended when they don’t receive our money with the words “In God We Trust” on it.
As The Guardian reported, the diatribe was wrong on two accounts: not only was the “offending” can made by Dr. Pepper actually only contain part of the Pledge of Allegiance (the phrase “One Nation… Indivisible”), but Pepsi had nothing to do with the making of the can.
The Dr Pepper/Seven-Up Company, the actual parent company at the time for Dr. Pepper, addressed the disinformation in a statement saying the commemorative can was “created to show support for the patriotic fervor that has been sweeping America since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and to show the world that we are a united nation of people who place a high value upon freedom.”
Update 9/8/2021, 1:07am: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here.