Fact Check

Is This a Photograph of a World Trade Center Tourist on 9/11?

A chilling photograph seemingly captures an unlucky tourist posing on the WTC on 9/11 an instant before a plane crashed into it.

Published Nov 19, 2001

Photograph captures an unlucky tourist posing on the observation deck of a World Trade Center tower on 9/11, seconds before a hijacked airliner smashed into the building.

The online world is fraught with clever photo manipulations that often provoke gales of laughter in those who view them, put together by pranksters acting on a lark. However, prompted by lighthearted motives or not, one photo sparked sensations of horror in those who viewed it in the days immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The image seemingly captured the last fraction of a second of a man's life ... and also of the final moment of normalcy before the universe changed for all of us. In the blink of an eye, a beautiful yet ordinary late summer day was transformed into flames and falling bodies, buildings collapsing inwards on themselves, and wave upon wave of terror washing over a populace wholly unprepared for a war beginning in its midst:

The picture ripped away the healing distance brought by the nearly two weeks between the attacks and the appearance of this grim reminder, leaving the sheer horror of the moment once again raw and bared to the wind. Whether or not the picture was real, the emotions it stirred up certainly were. It was because of those emotions that the photograph began to speed from inbox to inbox at the end of September 2001.

However, aside from all the digital imperfections in the image (e.g., shadows of different objects that don't correspond to the same light source, the date-time stamp in the wrong type of font), a number of logistical errors proved it to be suspect beyond credibility:

  • September 11 was a warm and sunny late summer day, not the type of weather in which a tourist would have been decked out in a winter coat and hat.
  • The airliner shown in the picture is approaching from the north and would therefore have been the plane that hit the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC1), but WTC1 did not have an outdoor observation deck. The south tower (WTC2) included an indoor observation deck on the 107th floor and an outdoor deck above the 110th floor, but WTC1 housed only Windows on the World, an indoor restaurant with a magnificent view of the city but no outdoor deck.
  • The operating hours in September for the WTC2 observatories were 9:30 A.M. to 9:30 P.M., meaning they opened too late for a tourist to have been present on one of them on September 11 before the first plane hit the WTC at 8:49 A.M.
  • The aircraft shown is a Boeing 757 bearing American Airline markings, but Flight 11, the only American flight to crash into the World Trade Center, was a 767. (The 767 is a wide-body jet; the 757 is a smaller, standard-body craft. This photograph on Airliners.net, from which the image of the plane used here was probably taken, is of a Boeing 757.)

Healing takes place in many fashions, and the Accidental Tourist not only became part of that healing process but also spawned an iconic genre of Internet lore, featured at web sites such as <!--TouristofDeath.com-->TouristofDeath.com.

Although the photo itself was quickly debunked as a digital manipulation, one looming mystery remained: Who was the tourist whose likeness appeared in the image?

In November 2001, a 41-year-old Brazilian man named José Roberto Penteado from Campinas, Sao Paulo, stepped forward to assert his face was used for the "Accidental Tourist" photo, but his claim later proved to be rather dubious.

A few weeks later, a Hungarian man named Peter staked a much better claim to the "Tourist Guy" crown by supplying the original photograph of himself (and other similar snapshots from the same session) and revealing that he himself had created the infamous "Accidental Tourist" image:



Benner, Jeffrey.   "'Tourist Guy': Is He or Isn't He?"    Wired.com.   9 November 2001.

Benner, Jeffrey.   "He's the Real Tourist Guy."     Wired.com.   20 November 2001.