As the anniversary of September 11 2001 approached in 2019, a video called “The Only Existing Footage Of 1st Plane Hitting WTC” circulated on social media in remembrance of a brief but pivotal moment in American history — but it’s straight from a disinformation site.
That video was first shared to a conspiracy theory YouTube channel (“Real 911questions”) in June 2015, accruing millions of views. The first clip’s title belied that sentiment in saying it was the “only existing footage” of Flight 11 as it crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower at 8:46 AM, on a day that shocked Americans to the core.
At the time it was filmed, several things were undeniably true. As of 8:45 AM (one minute before), few Americans other than the doomed passengers of the flight and air traffic controllers had any inkling anything that was amiss on what was by all accounts a beautiful September day in New York City. Smartphones as we know them were virtually non-existent, along with the videos and photographs they have the ability to capture. Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram had not yet been developed, and the world as a whole was far less documented at any given moment — a cultural circumstance that has vastly changed in the intervening two decades.
A consequence of that was that aside from surveillance footage, few people, if any, captured the moment that shocking and surprising things were going to happen, making the attacks a fertile ground for conspiracy theories to take root. No one was expecting Flight 11’s collision with the North Tower (also known as 1 WTC), and thus few cameras were intentionally trained on the boring building on an otherwise quotidian morning. That was obviously not the case for the subsequent strike on the South Tower (2 WTC); Flight 175 crashed into the second tower at 17 minutes later at 9:03 AM, immediately signaling that the initial and subsequent collisions were intentional.
The video, then, didn’t just depict the first plane striking the first tower. It depicted the final seconds of an America before what would come to be called 9/11, a place where the 2,977 deaths reported on that day alone had not yet occurred. (As we later learned, the “latent death toll” of September 11th would be higher still, along the deaths of servicemen, women, and civilians for which there has been “no formal accounting.”)
Through that lens, the video is far more than the sum of its elements, likely the reason the clip experienced such a high rate of interest in the days leading up to the anniversary of those compounding tragedies:
The footage as presented here is not in its original form. The 1:33 clip begins with studio interviews of Jules and Gedeon Naudet, a pair of French filmmakers. The Naudet brothers (as they are sometimes called) were in the process of following the trajectory of a rookie firefighter at the New York Fire Department (NYFD)’s Engine 7, Ladder 1. In a ten-year retrospective of the attack, Public Radio International reported how the Naudet brothers’ project radically shifted at 8:46 AM on September 11 2001:
In 2001, Jules and Gedeon Naudet had spent the summer with New York City’s Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse originally to make a film about a rookie firefighter. One Tuesday morning in September, Jules Naudet heard a roar overhead and as he pointed his camera upward, he caught the only documented footage of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. While most of Manhattan ran away or stood frozen in fear, the Naudet brothers went [further] downtown — with Jules Naudet entering the North Tower as it was burning.
A documentary titled 9/11, composed with the Naudet brothers’ resulting footage of the attacks and their aftermath, aired on CBS on March 10 2002 to mark the event’s six-month anniversary. Jules Naudet later said of his actions in capturing the unfolding attack:
Keeping filming became almost a drive, a defense mechanism because if I kept filming and kept looking at the images through that little screen on the side of my camera, it was not happening to me. I was looking through a window so I could protect myself from going crazy.
The relevant footage begins with firefighters gathered on the street operating a tool near a street grate, and the rapid progression of the events comes into immediate, sharp focus. Between 1:02 and 1:03, the roaring sound of a commercial jetliner becomes audible; just prior, no one in the frame seems aware of it. At 1:05 and 1:06, the gathered firefighters begin looking to the sky as the sound intensifies. At 1:08, the camera awkwardly pans to the final second of the intact Twin Towers.
And at 1:09, American Airlines Flight 11 (out of Boston Logan Airport, heading to Los Angeles) strikes the North Tower. Bystanders and firefighters react with loud shock, first as the plane disappears into the mammoth skyscraper, and again when a large fireball appears four seconds later at 1:13. The remaining twenty seconds of footage remains trained on WTC, engulfed in flames. No additional action appears in that version of the clip.
In the PRI retrospective, the piece stated Jules Naudet captured “the only documented footage of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center,” a claim repeated in the title of the viral video. Another, shorter clip of Naudet’s shared to YouTube in April 2008 had three million views. A Wikipedia page for Flight 11 used phrasing suggestive of additional footage, stating that Jules Naudet filmed the “only known footage of the initial impact from start to finish.”
On September 7 2003, the New York Times published an article describing the scarcity of specific 9/11 moments. It begins by describing footage captured by immigrant worker Pavel Hlava, “a kind of accidentally haunting artifact,” as the only clip of “both planes on impact, and only the second image of any kind showing the first strike”:
The S.U.V., carrying an immigrant worker from the Czech Republic who was making a video postcard to send home, then entered the mouth of the tunnel and emerged, to the shock of the three men inside the vehicle, nearly at the foot of the now burning tower.
The camera, pointed upward, zoomed in and out, and then, with a roar in the background that built to a piercing screech, it locked on the terrifying image of the second plane as it soared, like some awful bird of prey, almost straight overhead, banking steeply, and blasted into the south tower.
It was not until almost two weeks later that the worker, Pavel Hlava, even realized that he had captured the first plane on video. Even then, Mr. Hlava, who speaks almost no English, did not realize that he had some of the rarest footage collected of the World Trade Center disaster. His is the only videotape known to have recorded both planes on impact, and only the second image of any kind showing the first strike.
While journalists were initially aware of Naudet’s Flight 11 footage, Hlava’s was initially “lost”:
At one point, a friend of Mr. Hlava’s wife traded a copy of the tape to another Czech immigrant for a bar tab at a pub in Ridgewood, Queens. Mr. Hlava and his brother, Josef, who was also in the S.U.V. on Sept. 11, tried at various times to sell the tape, both in New York and in the Czech Republic. But with little sophistication about the news media and no understanding of the tape’s significance, the brothers had no success.
Eventually, a woman happened to learn of the tape from the pub deal at a school where one of the Czech immigrants was studying English. She brought it to the attention of a freelance news photographer who doubled as her ballroom dancing partner, and that man, Walter Karling, brought the tape to The New York Times.
In addition to a language barrier inhibiting Hlava’s ability to talk to American reporters, another passenger in the vehicle was Hlava’s boss David Melichar. Melichar vociferously objected to distribution of the video, telling the New York Times that he had warned Hlava if the video surfaced he would lose his job:
Three thousand people died in that place … I told [Hlava] the day he’s gonna sell that film, he’s not gonna work for me anymore.
Consequently, Hlava’s video of the first tower strike was largely little-known until the September 2003 Times piece. By that point, the Naudet footage had largely been deemed the “only existing footage” of Flight 11 hitting WTC 2. It was also fair to say Hlava’s footage, while presenting a continuous view of the towers encompassing both the crash of Flight 11 into Tower Two and the crash of Flight 173 into the South Tower, was filmed from a greater distance.
Those two clips were between 16 and 17 seconds long, zooming in on the crash after about seven seconds. In September 2018, a Freedom of Information Act request led to the release of other captures, none of which seem to show the 8:46 AM crash.
The YouTube clip “The Only Existing Footage Of 1st Plane Hitting WTC” is not accurately titled. It is true that Jules Naudet captured one of two known videos of Flight 11 striking WTC 2 at 8:46 AM on September 11 2001. A second clip filmed at the entrance of the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel by Pavel Hlava also captured the first strike and the second continuously, but that clip was virtually unknown at the time the Naudet video aired. The Naudet clip is considered the most detailed video of Flight 11’s fateful collision with the North Tower, and Hlava’s is notable for continuous filming of both tower strikes (at 8:46 and 9:03 AM respectively).
The fact that the viral YouTube video is misleadingly titled on a channel devoted to conspiracy theories indicates that it is an intentional disinformation vector that was intentionally created to funnel viewers to other similar sites and thus seed and spread disinformation. It should be treated accordingly.