15 years ago, one of the earliest and cruelest online photo-hoaxes made its first appearance.

According to Snopes, this “accidental tourist” photo started popping up worldwide in email chains just a couple of weeks after 9/11, usually preceded by this message:

“We’ve seen thousands of pictures concerning the attack. However, this one will make you cringe. A simple tourist getting himself photographed on the top of the WTC just seconds before the tragedy … the camera was found in the rubble!!”

Photo Credit: Snopes

This photo had already become a worldwide phenomenon by the end of September, when most people were still struggling to grasp the enormity of the terrorist attack.

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But it was quickly found to be a hoax.

There are several obvious errors:

  • Film probably wouldn’t survive the events of 9/11.
  • That’s the wrong font for a date-stamp.
  • It was a really nice day on 9/11, much too warm for a coat and hat.
  • The outdoor observation decks of the only tower that had them weren’t open until another 40 minutes after the 1st plane struck.
  • The plane in the photo is coming from the wrong direction, or this is the wrong tower. Take your pick.
  • It’s the wrong type of plane.

That’s a Boeing 757. The only American Airlines flight to crash into the World Trade Center was a 767.

Also, note how the reflection over the cockpit is exactly the same as the one in the photo-hoax.

Photo Credit: Snopes

With so many glaring errors, the hoax didn’t last long, but it quickly morphed into something even larger: On now defunct websites like TouristGuy.com and the archived TouristofDeath.com, people turned the hoax into an early version of a meme:

Photo Credit: Stuntcock/taringa

Photo Credit: taringa

Photo Credit: TouristofDeath

The phenomenon continued to pick up steam in the following months, as people grew more curious about who the person in the photo was, and who created the original hoax.