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A People’s History of 9/11
An interactive journey through archives of 9/11 data guided by survivors, government officials, those who captured footage, and a nerd with a decades-long interest.
Content warning: upsetting descriptions and data throughout.
I’ve been wondering if I’m desensitised to the events of 9/11. Each impact and collapse, sirens screaming past crying onlookers; even the ubiquitous distress whistles - the sound of downed firefighters - do not disturb me as much as I think they should.
As we observe the 20th anniversary this week, I’m unclear whether it’s an emotional distance or an emotional preoccupation that’s been created. Given the number of documentaries and articles published, I doubt I’m the only one.
A decade ago I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the 9/11 conspiracy documentaries springing up across the internet. I examined their use of language and editing to make claims and manipulate audiences, becoming intimately familiar with the footage used and the archives created to navigate it for ‘clues’.
The well-worn images and sounds of catastrophe are not the ones I became most affected by. Deeper in the archives within raw footage, anecdotal, transcript, and data evidence are many quieter, rarely seen moments. It’s these that have stayed with me.
Our cultural relationship to the events and their aftermath is complex. I’ve revisited the archives and interviewed people who captured and curated them - survivors, government officials, journalists, conspiracy experts, and conspiracy theorists - to create an interactive history and historiography of 9/11.
A story not simply of the disaster but of the cultural narratives we’ve created, the development of technology since the turn of the century, and the ways in which we use and abuse data, each others’ words, and the truth.
NYC’s Camera Per Capita
It’s hard to convey how much data around 9/11 exists. Above and beyond the thousands of tapes and images on searchable platforms, there will be tapes never shared, perhaps never watched.
Most people will be aware of documentary filmmaker Jules Naudet's famed recording of the first plane impact on 9/11, the only clear shot taken at 8:46am. There are four other known recordings.
Another video, shot by Pavel Hlava as he entered the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, is obscured by both angle and quality, and a FOX 5 news camera - running, but on the ground pointing at the operator’s feet - recorded the sound of the impact and its immediate aftermath from a couple of blocks away.
Video artist Wolfgang Staehle had a webcam in his Brooklyn studio trained on the southern tip of Manhattan, which caught stills of the first impact and, finally, there is audio by Ginny Carr, who was recording a business meeting at One Liberty Plaza, one block from the WTC complex.
The meeting of this particular technological and geographical moment is the reason why, although four hijacked planes crashed on September 11th, 2001, ‘9/11’ is culturally synonymous with the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City.
The first two of four impacts drew immediate attention from the national broadcast news hub just a few neighbourhoods away. Additionally, as a leading tourism capital and global hub for artists and the incredibly wealthy, even as camcorders had only recently become a common consumer item, NYC likely had one of the highest camera per capita rates in the world.
As a result, the attack on the World Trade Center is one of the most recorded events of all time.
Primordial Social Media
In all my conversations with 9/11 survivors, there is usually a moment at which they note the technology they were using on the day. I read it as a shorthand, grey-tinted nostalgia by those for whom 9/11 is a living memory of just how much change the world was experiencing at the ‘pre-/post-9/11’ fulcrum, and how that rate of change has only accelerated in a way none of us predicted or desired.
The term ‘social media’ was not yet in usage; none of those platforms existed. Uploads of 9/11 footage would later proliferate on YouTube and the now-defunct Google Video, but even these were a few years away.
The ‘01 equivalent was the message board; at 13, I was discussing my age, sex and location with strangers whose chat box popped up on my parents’ computer screen. At 2001-09-11 9:01:26 AM on the messageboard FARK, ‘sgamer’ left a hyperlink showing a CNN news story: NEWS FLASH: PLANES CRASH INTO WORLD TRADE CENTER, PENTAGON. Then:
“Another one has flown into the other tower,” says Mme.Mersault at 2001-09-11 9:03:27 AM.
At 2001-09-11 9:03:52 AM, one minute after the second plane impact, BugReaper asks: “Is this real?”
Up Close and Infamous
Even before the first FARK post, Jules Naudet had arrived with his team of firefighters at WTC1.
The Naudet Brothers’ documentary is a phenomenal record of the events from the firefighters’ perspective. Their original story was in following rookie firefighter Tony Benetatos; after recording the first impact Jules followed Battalion Chief Pfeiffer and his team, the first on the scene, into the complex capturing the events from start to finish - including the collapse of WTC2 from inside WTC1.
The brothers’ footage became the documentary 9/11. Of course, numerous other journalists and citizens captured less famous, but equally astonishing and revealing footage of the events from up close.
A detailed demonstration of the debris thrown from the building on impact can be found in the tape from Michael Barbagallo, a WPIX TV cameraman standing at the foot of the Millennium Hilton hotel. Though he misses the second impact itself, he captures a key scene of how much steel and glass was jettisoned from the building onto the street, showing how dangerous simply being in the area was for those evacuating, and for the emergency servicemen arriving.
By this point, numerous people had already jumped or fallen from WTC1, also a risk to those on the ground. 9/11’s first officially recorded casualty is Father Mychal Judge, a chaplain with Chief Pfeiffer’s battalion killed in the first collapse. But the New York Times’ archive of first responder testimony shows that firefighter Dan Suhr was likely the first emergency service casualty.
Speaking about the rescue effort between first impact and first collapse, Captain Paul Conlon’s testimony states:
“We got about halfway [from the truck to the building] and Dan Suhr got hit with a jumper. He was right to my right and behind me. It was as if he exploded. It wasn’t like you heard something falling and you could jump out of the way.”
With events so chaotic, with so many people involved, countless stories like Dan Suhr’s remain untold.
Corners of the Internet
Many floors above Michael Barbagallo, Tami Michaels and her husband Guy powered up their camera.
On the phone, one of the things Tami makes clear to me is, though she knows the tape is in the public domain, “I am not promoting the tape, or advocating that people watch the tape”. (I won’t link to it here.)
‘The tape’ is a genuinely unique historical document. It has become notorious in certain corners of the internet.
Tami suffered what she describes as “horrible PTSD” in the years after 9/11. Tourists in NYC armed with a camcorder, she and Guy rode out both impacts and collapses from inside their hotel room on the 35th floor of the Millenium Hilton, with an unobstructed view of the WTC complex plaza.
Stopping and starting the tape numerous times, they didn’t capture either impact or collapse. But their vantage point meant that they did capture numerous people falling from the towers, just meters away. Distraught, they discuss what is happening in disbelief, and whether it is safer to stay or leave.
During our conversation, Tami is incredibly frank with me, which I appreciate; I acknowledge my ambivalence about making international calls to strangers to ask them about the worst day of their lives, but she makes it easy - and is ahead of all my questions.
The couple has been approached a number of times to sell the footage: “the amount of money that we were offered for the rights to this video exceeds six figures,” she notes, as did the medical bills accrued from the neck injuries Guy sustained. When the second plane hit the resulting fireball hit their window throwing him headfirst into a wall.
“It would have made a huge difference in our lives, we're not wealthy people. But it’s blood money.” They turned their footage over to the FBI.
The Government Archives
By now, anyone with a camera in Lower Manhattan, citizen or journalist, has it trained on the towers themselves or the surrounding chaos. For the rest of the day, thousands of hours of footage will be captured; some of it unusable or banal, some of it key evidence and historical record of the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.
Much of this footage can be found here and there on YouTube, in various lengths and states of watchability. It’s been used in hundreds of documentaries produced by broadcasters for anniversaries - and those produced for promotion of “9/11 Truth”.
In the years following, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) made a gargantuan effort to gather all the evidence they could - from the clearest to the most obscure - to inform their investigation into how and why the Twin Towers and WTC 7 fell: the Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster.
They obtained over 14,000 video clips and photographs. An example of the clearest is Cynthia Weil’s; a tape of the full ninety minutes between the aftermath of the first impact at 8:46 am, through the second impact and both collapses, ending around 10:30 am.
It’s a largely static shot, except for a handful of zooms in and out capturing some significant detail. When Weil zooms in at 5m10s, the shot’s clear enough to see 'The Waving Woman', rumoured to be Marsh and McLennan employee Edna Cintron.
“As part of our statutory responsibilities at NIST, we have been doing building and fire investigations ever since we were founded 120 years ago,” says S. Shyam Sunder, director of NIST’s Special Programs Office, Chief Data Officer, and leader of the WTC investigation team.
“We had a lot more than a video archive; that was not the focus of what we wanted. For the purposes of our investigation, we were interested in physical evidence, visual evidence, recorded evidence in the sense of radio communications between emergency responders and 911 calls, and also documentary evidence in the form of planning, design, construction, maintenance and operational documents for the buildings over their lifetime.”
Alongside 14,000 pieces of visual evidence Sunder’s team collected 236 pieces of steel, accounts of evacuation from 400 survivors, and more. Their report is 11,000 pages long, and as a federal document was always intended to be made available to the public. But some were determined to access the raw materials.
In 2009, NIST’s entire video and photo dataset was published online in the 9/11 study repository. The International Center for 9/11 Studies, a group affiliated with the 9/11 Truth Movement, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for "all of the photographs and videos collected, reviewed, cited or in any other way used by NIST during its investigation of the World Trade Center building collapses."
‘Truthers’ then set about organising, curating, and enhancing the archive themselves.
The Conspiracists’ Archives
The main problem with 9/11 Truthers is that they just can’t get along.
“One of my main reasons for creating the video archive was to thwart ridiculous conspiracy theories that I myself became interested in around 2008,” Matt Nelson of 911conspiracy.tv tells me. “Fringe loonies claimed, and still try to claim, that no planes were used in the attacks at all.”
All Truthers are trying to prove something, but not necessarily the same thing - regardless, they need and share evidence. Nelson has written and self-published a book: "9/11 Debris: An Investigation of Ground Zero".
The 265-page PDF contains a hyperlink to every source it uses at the point of reference. It links to numerous academic and governmental studies, including NIST’s.
9/11 Truthers love data. Human beings love a narrative, and these create ones with mountains of cliffhangers by compiling the most fascinating questions such as: why was glass, as noted by the 9/11 museum, a “rare find” at Ground Zero? Why were the black boxes never recovered? Why is there no video footage of the impact at the Pentagon, one of the most heavily protected buildings on the planet?
In order to pose these questions, you need data. And in order to navigate a dataset for the most recorded event of all time, you need a decent system. I’ve been through NIST’s repository and, understandably, the scientists’ focus was fulfilling a FOIA request, not creating a smooth user experience.
It’s a Google Drive database with numerous folders containing thousands of items, some labeled with useful metadata (photographer name, location of shot, timestamp), some not. In the Michael Barbagallo footage I embedded above, you’ll see the title “WPIX Dub2 01-23” - much of the database is blank thumbnails titled thusly.
Many, like Nelson, who took it upon themselves to organise the footage in a more digestible way created YouTube channels hosting relabelled and annotated news footage, raw footage, documentary edits. Some are additions to people’s personal channels, some are entirely dedicated: WTC911Demolition, Organised WTC Visual Database. Perhaps none are so dedicated as ‘EnhancedWTCVideos’. The owner took the most significant, and/or complete, footage from the NIST archive, doubled the frame rate, and (somehow) enhanced the quality to make it as look as high-definition as late-90s technology can.
“I don’t know, technically, what they did but it looked amazing,” CBS cameraman Mark LaGanga exclaims about the enhanced version of his footage on YouTube (the EnhancedWTC version is now blocked). “It literally looked like HD. I’m dating myself here but I can tell you, beta tape has never looked that good.”
He talked to an editor he works with and asked them what had been done to the video.
“He said ‘I don’t know, but if you find out let us know’.” I tell Mark I’ve been trying to track down the owner of EnhancedWTCVideos for an interview with no luck, and that if I ever succeed, I’ll ask.
The owner of the channel, located in Germany, also gathered all NIST’s key metadata and listed it in the description bar alongside timestamps that take viewers to noteworthy moments. There are plenty in Mark LaGanga’s footage.
LaGanga is now a cameraman for 60 Minutes, but on 9/11 worked for the North East bureau of CBS News. “I’ve always worked news. Local news where I grew up and then freelancing and working my way up from there. I went on staff at CBS just after the [election] recount in 2000,” he tells me, explaining why he came to be one of the only people walking towards the World Trade Center’s one remaining twin tower shortly after 10 am.
“I was at home on the Upper West Side when my landline, cellphone, and pager all went off at once - it was pretty unusual to have two of those three things at that time.”
The calls lighting up his new devices were from CBS’s national office - they needed someone downtown straight away to capture a developing accident. By the time he arrived on West Street, the first tower had already collapsed but, amid the chaos and dust in the air surrounding the still standing North tower, he didn’t initially realise the South tower was gone.
Unaware that in less than half an hour the North tower would collapse also, he moved towards the complex to investigate. LaGanga ended up capturing one of the few tapes, alongside Naudet’s, from the WTC complex between the two collapses.
The half-hour-long tape explores the newly destroyed site, interviewing people on the street covered in dust and blood; he asks them what happened. He told me how disorienting it was to only see one tower, assuming the other was hidden by the smoke - but for the other never to reveal itself no matter which direction he travelled.
He approaches the Marriott Hotel (aka WTC3) with a gash right through it, and in the middle of West Street are three sets of giant steel girders. At first, it looks like the famous pictures of the outer edges that remained standing. It’s parts of the recently collapsed WTC2 embedded in the ground.
LaGanga also captured the only known footage from inside WTC7, another building in the complex across the street from the main plaza, and the third and final to collapse. Inside, he interviews Secret Service agent William Bennette, who would later be charged for stealing cars from Ground Zero, pretending they were destroyed in the attacks. Back outside the complex LaGanga interviews more civilians and is standing just next to the North tower when it, too, collapses.
I asked him if he had revisited the footage. “Very rarely actually, I made a point not to.” Had he been offered any therapy by his employers? He quite nonchalantly responds that no, he was immediately back on the job - this time, to Afghanistan.
He had previously reported from conflict zones, and though NYC was his home turf and entirely unprecedented, he notes that his experiences in war zones “probably prepared him, as much as anybody could be prepared for that sort of thing.”
His experience demonstrates just how disorienting the collapse of the tallest buildings in a city of skyscrapers could be, as a landscape explosively reorders itself around you. When conspiracy theorists jump on eyewitness testimony as evidence - for example, “I heard two explosions” - this doesn’t seem to factor in their thinking. A lot of things sounded like ‘explosions’ that day.
The Austin J. Tobin Plaza
About an hour before LaGanga arrived, while both towers were still standing, FOX 5 camera operator Jack Taliercio visited the plaza too. He captured workers escaping the various buildings of the complex, the shopping mall underneath, and a single file line of firefighters hugging the perimeter of the towers as they enter so as not to be in the path of anything falling.
The plaza PA system piped pure ‘90s muzak: midi files of inoffensive love songs. Taliercio takes detail shots of the once pristine space, now covered in glass, dust and smouldering paper, to the sounds of an instrumental Billy Joel cover: a pair of discarded sunglasses, sheet metal hitting the floor, a car on fire at the base of the towers.
He switches to a long, high-angle zoom-in to a man who appears to be attempting to climb out of a window and down the face of the building. For a moment he waves his jacket in surrender. One song ends, and a piano rendition of the Bee Gees’ ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ begins.
Taliercio and his companion watch him, mostly quiet, but occasionally commenting in disbelief. The muzak continues.
“He’s being lowered!” one of them exclaims, excited. The man begins to fall, and disappears behind another building.
NIST NCSTAR 1-5A Appendix M, the final item in the Visual Evidence section of NIST’s report, contains a record of every human being who was seen falling from the towers.
Any footage of those who fell or jumped wasn’t relevant to the investigation per se, Sunder tells me, except to confirm “where conditions inside the building were not tenable for human life.” This clarified their mission to understand how to prevent similar events in the future; not only to better understand and prevent building collapse but also the impact of fire and fire spread on building occupants.
After talking to Sunder, and revisiting all this various data, it seems to me that Appendix M is the kernel of our preoccupation with 9/11. The nature of a single person falling 93 floors is terrible; a list of 101 of them is incomprehensible, a jigsaw puzzle of collective trauma we’ve spent twenty years trying to solve.
There is no solution to, or even an ability to connect to the reality of, something that horrific. Seeing it in blunt data form is as close as we’ll ever get to understanding it.
I was 13 on 9/11. My young brain and nervous system were stunned by it, and its capture by news media and social media, in turn, captured me as those two things bred and bloated and I came of age. I’ve spent twenty years trying to understand logically something that’s incomprehensible emotionally.
The neverending found-footage-esque spectacle of its horror has backdropped the Boring Dystopia we’ve cultivated since. Almost all the people I spoke to for this piece, even survivors, were as outraged by the subsequent Western foreign policy as the events themselves.
I wonder whether conspiracy theorists and survivors have also created distance to cope. I wonder, given that the NIST investigation team ended up spending 6 years studying the data, while also having to cater to the questions and demands of conspiracy theorists, if they were forced to do the same, consciously or unconsciously?
“There was never an emotional distance.” says Sunder. “If anything I think there was an emotional closeness, which compelled us to get the right results. We left no stone unturned.”