Fact Check

Wheel of Fortune

Were the September 11 terrorist attacks on America a failure from a statistical standpoint?

Published Oct 2, 2001

Legend:   The September 11 terrorist attacks on America were a failure from a statistical standpoint.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2001]

A new twist on the story . . . .

By now everyone has been hearing the death toll rise and reports of the destruction from the terrorist attacks on the US. These were deplorable acts that we will never forget. But now is a time to look at the other side of the numbers coming out of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The sad but somewhat uplifting side that the mainstream media has not reported yet - the SURVIVAL rates and some positive news about the attacks.

*** The Buildings ***

* The World Trade Center - The twin towers of the World Trade Center were places of employment for some 50,000 people. With the missing list of just over 5,000 people, that means 90% of the people targeted survived the attack. A 90% on a test is an 'A'.

* The Pentagon - Some 23,000 people were the target of a third plane aimed at the Pentagon. The latest count shows that only 123 lost their lives. That is an amazing 99.5% survival rate. in addition, the plane seems tohave come in too low, too early to affect a large portion of the building. On top of that, the section that was hit was the first of five sections to undergo renovations that would help protect the Pentagon from terrorist attacks. It had recently completed straightening and blastproofing, saving untold lives. This attack was sad, but a statistical failure.

*** The Planes ***

* American Airlines Flight 77 This Boeing 757 that was flown into the outside of the Pentagon could have carried up to 289 people, yet only 64 were aboard. Luckily 78% of the seats were empty.

* American Airlines Flight 11 This Boeing 767 could have had up to 351 people aboard, but only carried 92. Thankfully 74% of the seats were unfilled.

* United Airlines Flight 175 Another Boeing 767 that could have sat 351 people only had 65 people on board. Fortunately it was 81% empty.

* United Airlines Flight 93 This Boeing 757 was one of the most uplifting stories yet. The smallest flight to be hijacked with only 45 people aboard out of a possible 289 had 84% of its capacity unused. Yet these people stood up to the attackers and thwarted a fourth attempted destruction of a national landmark, saving untold numbers of lives in the process.

*** In Summary ***

Out of potentially 74,280 Americans directly targeted by these inept cowards, 93% survived or avoided the attacks. That's a higher survival rate than heart attacks, breast cancer, kidney transplants and liver transplants - all common, survivable illnesses.

The Hijacked planes were mostly empty, the Pentagon was hit at it's strongest point, the overwhelming majority of
people in the World Trade Center buildings escaped, and a handful of passengers gave the ultimate sacrifice to save even more lives.

Don't fear these terrorists. The odds are against them.

Origins:   One constant of human nature is that in times of crisis we strive to put a good face on even the worst events; we steel ourselves to remain strong and determined and defiant, come what may. We strive

Roulette wheel

to find some good amidst death and destruction by spinning ordinary events as inspirational tales, telling
and re-telling rumors, and passing off wishful anecdotes as the truth. All of these are part of a process by which we struggle to make sense of what has happened and prepare ourselves for what is yet to come.

Sometimes, though, tales intended to motivate and reassure can go too far towards creating a false and unwise sense of reassurance and safety.

The terrorists who attacked the USA on September 11 intended to kill people, destroy property, and sow fear and terror — they accomplished all of that on a grand scale, and they likely exceeded their expectations in doing so. They may not have anticipated that they could bring both World Trade Center towers crashing to the ground, but they achieved that result nonetheless. They didn't expect to kill every single person in the Pentagon with a single airplane, but they still managed to achieve their goal of hitting a key military office complex in the capital city of the strongest military power in the world and thereby send Americans (and the world) the chilling message that no one is safe, anywhere. That the planes they hijacked were lightly loaded with passengers was almost certainly due to careful planning, not


Award ourselves an "A" because only 10% of World Trade Center workers were killed? We might as well give the Confederate States of America a "B," then, because even though they lost a bloody civil war which devastated their homes, industry, and countryside, "only" about 20% of their male population was killed in the process.

That far more people didn't die on September 11 was not due to ineptitude on the part of the terrorists or to a statistical anomaly — it was largely due to our being lucky. Lucky that one of the four hijacked flights was sufficiently delayed on take-off for some courageous passengers to learn what was happening and thwart their hijackers before another target was hit. Lucky that the World Trade Center towers remained standing long enough for thousands of people to make their way to safety before they collapsed. Lucky that the terrorists have (for now) concentrated more on destroying symbols than killing people en masse.

Just as we should retain our confidence and determination rather than allow ourselves to give in to unreasonable fears and hysteria, neither should we allow false assurances to delude us into believing that we've somehow come out best in a deadly game of chance. We haven't.

Last updated:   8 March 2008


David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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