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.

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.

In November of 2001, still just two months after the attacks, José Roberto Penteado, a Brazilian businessman, claimed credit for the photos:

Photo Credit: E-Farsas

He totally looked like the dude in the photo, so people believed him.

He somehow nearly bargained his newfound infamy into a commercial for Volkswagen, but VW changed their mind – perhaps deciding they shouldn’t piggy-back off of a 9/11 related photo-hoax.

However, just a few weeks later, Peter Guzli came forward with definitive proof – other photographs of himself on that day:

Photo Credit: Peter Guzli/Wired

“November 28, 1997,” the photo says. Now the coat makes sense.

He’s also the guy that created the hoax photograph, which totally makes him seem like a bit of a royal dick.

Photo Credit: Peter Guzli/Wired

But it turns out that this all started out as a private joke that Guzli sent by email to some friends.

Some dark humor, perhaps, during a time when most of our heads were still spinning from this massive event.

Photo Credit: E-Farsas

This was before Facebook AND MySpace, so it should have ended right there.

But his friends started sharing the pic, and one thing led to a few million.

He told Wired in 2001, “This was a joke meant for my friends, not such a wide audience.”

He withheld his last name in that interview, unlike Penteado, who seemed ready for any and all attention he could get before the truth came out.

Guzli released a public apology in 2011, just before the 10th anniversary of the attacks (translated from Hungarian):

“I assumed my friends would recognize me and call me to see if I was alright, but they posted it on to other friends and suddenly it was all over the world. … I didn’t really stop to consider the consequences and never thought it would go outside of my small circle of friends. … I wish you would end this story. I want people to know that I’m sorry, and I hope this can be the end of the ‘Tourist Guy’ story.”

We can question his judgment, using 9/11 to get a couple of gasps and giggles from his friends, but maybe we can also understand how a small, private joke might turn into a large controversy. He certainly wasn’t the last person to send a photo that blew up way past what he intended.