The world was a different place when the 9/11 attacks happened 18 years ago. Imagine how social media would fuel—and befoul—the reaction to a similar event today.
Two months pregnant with their first child, the 38-year-old Grandcolas was returning home to California when her flight from Newark Airport—United 93—was hijacked, and she, along with other passengers and crew, used the Verizon Airfones that then populated the backs of plane seats to call down to loved ones below.
“Honey, are you there? Jack, pick up, sweetie,” she began. She’d reached the answering machine, the kind once common in American homes that played a message out loud in the house while the recorder ran—allowing people still sprinting for the landline an extra chance to pick up or, in an era before Caller ID, for those screening calls to hear who was calling before deciding whether to answer.
Jack didn’t pick up, so she continued: “OK, well, I just wanted to tell you I love you. We’re having a little problem on the plane. I’m totally fine. I just love you more than anything. Just know that. Please tell my family I love them too.”
Then 27-year-old Honor Elizabeth Wainio called her stepmother. Wainio’s stepmother later recalled that the final words she heard from the plane were: “They’re getting ready to break into the cockpit. I have to go. I love you. Goodbye.” Minutes later, the hijackers crashed Flight 93 into an abandoned mine in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as the passengers and crew overpowered the four men who had seized their plane.
The voice messages are artifacts that underscore the bravery and sacrifice of that day exactly 18 years ago, but also offer a unique glimpse into how different an era 2001 truly was. I’ve spent the past three years listening to, reading, and collecting thousands of Americans’ experiences on 9/11, as part of research for a new book, The Only Plane in the Sky, an oral history that ultimately traces how 480 Americans experienced that tragic day, from the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Shanksville to the West Coast, air traffic control towers, Capitol Hill, and aboard Air Force One with President George W. Bush.
Throughout my research, I kept running across telling details, like the anachronistic first words of Lauren Grandcolas’ final voice message, that made me stop and think about how comparatively primitive communications were when those September 11 attacks unfolded. How people turned to their BlackBerrys for information, posted their reactions to the attacks on LiveJournal, and shared concern with friends over AOL Instant Messenger.
We think of 9/11 as part of our modern world—it was, in many ways, the hinge upon which many of the forces of today turn, from Donald Trump’s xenophobia to the instability in the Middle East to the forever war in Afghanistan. In our memories it often seems like September 11, 2001, represents the beginning of the modern world, yet the deeper I got into studying 9/11, the more I felt that it was less the beginning of the 21st century and more the ending of the 20th century—a relic of the analog age rather than the dawn of the digital.
The attacks of September 11 might have been the first global catastrophe experienced in real time by hundreds of millions of people around the world. The first footage came almost immediately, from WNYW-TV Fox 5 on its morning show Good Day New York. CNN had a live feed trained on the Twin Towers at 8:49, barely three minutes after the first plane hit.
As the morning progressed, news permeated almost every TV channel. VH1 and MTV ran CBS’s coverage; ESPN and ESPN2 tapped ABC’s. The TV news crawl—a staple of cable news today—took root that day, a recognition that there was just too much news to talk about. Throughout the day, visuals came first, facts came later—often much later. As night fell in the US, Nielsen estimated that at least 80 million Americans tuned in to watch the evening news, still dominated by three men—Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw, who had been the nation’s stately anchors for a generation.
All told, one estimate by the University of Georgia held that as many as two billion people either watched the attacks in real time or watched the day’s news about it. Timing had something to do with that broad viewership: At 9 am ET, most of the rest of the world was awake as well.
For Europe, it was the middle of the afternoon. For much of eastern Asia, it was mid-evening, catching many just before they went to bed. “I think it was the most photographed event of our time, if not in history,” curator Michael Shulan told David Friend, who wrote a book on the images of 9/11. “It was a photogenic event to an almost unparalleled degree.”
Most of us watched the same thing on that day, united in front of millions of televisions in a way that the nation perhaps hadn’t been since the days of the Kennedy assassination.
Yet part of the reason we all watched the same thing on TV was that, technologically speaking, we were living in a comparative dark age 18 years ago. Apple’s stock was $1.24 on September 10, and according to WIRED, one of the hot new gadgets was the Casio WQV3D-8 wristwatch.
The web was still in its awkward adolescence, AOL the world’s dominant homepage, MSNBC still a partnership between Microsoft and NBC. (Do most viewers today even remember that the “MS” once referred to Microsoft?) News websites slowed to a crawl under the heavy traffic loads, and so the go-to choice was television. As Friend wrote in his book, Watching the World Change, “The city, the nation, and the human race looked on as one unblinking eye.”
I was continually struck in my research by how few alternative sources of information many people had—even those close to the attacks and those seemingly at the epicenter of national leadership. For the entourage traveling with President Bush in Sarasota, Florida, the cutting-edge communication tool that provided the first information about the attacks was a pager.
As White House press secretary Ari Fleischer recalled, “I had this high-tech pager on my belt—it was two-way, in that you could send back one of like 14 preprogrammed responses. For the day, it was pretty fancy-fancy stuff. As we were driving to the first stop for the day, I got a page from Brian Bravo, who put together the White House news clips.” Bravo’s page read, simply, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.”
Over the next hour, President Bush was rushed aboard Air Force One, which rocketed into the sky, a move that protected him yet ultimately compromised his access to information. Back then, the president’s plane had no satellite or cable TV nor access to email, so the plane relied on the equivalent of old rabbit-ear TV antennas to pick up local TV coverage as it flew over the southeastern United States. As Fleischer told me, “It put us in a very different spot than most Americans that day. People around the world were riveted to their television sets. We had it intermittently on Air Force One … When you’re in the air, you’re cut off.”
Sonya Ross, the AP reporter in the presidential press pool on 9/11, recalls, “We didn’t know where we were going, but they must’ve been circling, because we kept watching the local feed of a Florida station going in and out. That was our tiny window into the outside world.”
Think about that: For much of the day, those aboard Air Force One with the President of the United States were less informed than the average American sitting at home watching CNN.
Ironically, even those at the epicenter of the day faced the same lack of information. People in the towers were emailing or calling friends and family and asking what was going on. Louise Buzzelli remembers her husband, Pasquale, who worked on the 64th floor of the North Tower, calling her that morning and asking her to turn on the TV. As she recalls, “Right away I turned on the television and I didn’t have to search at all—any station I went on, I saw the top of his building on fire. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, Pasquale! Your building is on fire! Why are you calling me?’”
Stephen Tompsett, an attendee at a conference that morning at the Windows on the World restaurant atop the North Tower, messaged his wife: “Watch CNN. Need updates.” Peter Alderman, another conference attendee that day, was succinct in his own email message to his sister: “I’m SCARED THERE IS A lot OF SMOKE.”
Many evacuating from the Towers also didn’t realize the extent of the damage in their own building. The relatively few cell phones then in existence mostly weren’t working—in addition to the overloaded networks, damaged phone lines and power outages rendered 160 cell sites inoperable. So news spread by word of mouth slowly in the stairwells.
Joe Massian, a consultant from the 70th floor of the North Tower, recalls learning what had happened only as he fled down the stairs. “People were getting news through pagers of what happened: a plane crash,” he says. “I didn’t realize it wasn’t a small plane.”
In New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his team were largely cut off from communications as they wandered the streets. At one point, they linked up with NY1’s reporter Andrew Kirtzman, who recalls, “Giuliani kept turning to me to say, ‘You’ve got to tell the public to stay out of here so our emergency vehicles can get through.’ He’s like, ‘Please. Everyone south has got to get out of here. Go north. No one should come south.’”
Kirtzman turned to the best technology within reach—a StarTAC flip phone—to share the mayor’s message with New Yorkers. It didn’t work. As he recalls, “I called New York 1 like 10 times, finally got through, and the control room was crazy busy. I said, ‘I’ve got Giuliani on the phone!’ They were overwhelmed. I waited and I waited. I don’t know whether it was 30 seconds or three minutes. Suddenly the phone went dead. I was never able to get through to them. We were on our own.”
On Capitol Hill, however, some congressional aides and members had a high-tech tool themselves: A BlackBerry. The company’s system famously held up on 9/11, even as other wireless networks collapsed. Still, Brian Gunderson, the chief of the staff to the House Majority Leader, recalls how the habit of cell phones and BlackBerrys was still new enough that many people didn’t automatically grab them as they fled: “We had moved out of the Capitol so quickly that a lot of people were stuck—women were stuck without their purses, men didn’t have their suit jackets, and a lot of people didn’t have their cell phones and their BlackBerrys.”
Across Washington and New York, coin-operated pay phones turned into a vital link to loved ones. Mallory Carra, who was at NYU on 9/11, recalls the long line of people waiting for pay phones and how many people actually went to the library computer lab for news. “The internet on all of the NYU library computers was painfully slow,” Carra says. “After 10 minutes of pressing refresh, I read a three-line AP story to [my friend] Jia aloud. ‘Two planes have crashed into World Trade Center.’ It took me a second to even realize what those words even meant. In this pre-Twitter world, I finally summed up my feelings in my LiveJournal at 9:14 am: ‘omg i am so scared.’”
Many of the iconic photos of that day were shot on rolls of film. (While working at the college newspaper over that summer, I’d actually been taught how to develop film in the darkroom—learning about film tanks, stop baths, fixer, reels, and all the steps that would soon be largely obsolete.)
As a result, many photographers probably did not realize how dramatic their photos were until their film was developed, days, weeks, or even months later. Some news photographers were just switching over to digital photos, and it was one of those photos that captured Massian fleeing Lower Manhattan as the towers fell, an iconic photo that raced around the world and, inadvertently, served to reassure his fiancée and her coworkers that he had survived when they saw it on the homepage of MSNBC.com.
Thinking about the communications on 9/11 made me realize just how different our experience of the attacks would be today—and how much more we would know, for better or worse, given our increased interconnectedness and instinct to turn to technology first when disaster strikes.
On 9/11, there were just three videographers, all coincidentally foreigners—a French filmmaker, a German artist, and a Czech tourist—who captured the impact of the first plane in New York City. Only two security cameras at the Pentagon are known to have captured the impact of the plane there. In Pennsylvania, there is literally only a video of the mushroom cloud rising from the field in the moments after Flight 93 crashed. It’s safe to say that today there would be scores, hundreds or even thousands, of photos and videos of low-flying planes hitting the towers and the Pentagon or diving over the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.
Today, there would be Facebook Live video, tweets, and Instagram posts from the streets below, from people caught in the impact zones, and most likely from victims trapped above the crash zones in the World Trade Centers—perhaps even from aboard the hijacked planes themselves. We would know intimately the sights and sounds that those trapped amid the day’s horrors experienced in their final moments and would be bombarded by the tragic images of people jumping or falling from the World Trade Center.
We would see what it was like to have been inside the burning Pentagon as an inferno spread. There would have been live images and videos nearly instantly from the field outside Shanksville where Flight 93 crashed, those first near the scene—which, in 2001 in Shanksville, were workers from a nearby scrapyard and two coal truck drivers who saw the plane crash as they drove down an adjacent road—would have had in their pockets more advanced tools today than the news reporters and photographers who rushed to the scene hours later had back then. (After all, it’s not uncommon now to have video from inside mass shootings or aviation accidents.)
If today’s communications technology had existed in 2001, it’s even possible that, just as the mass shooter in New Zealand broadcast his massacre on Facebook, the 9/11 hijackers themselves might have broadcast their own attack—their goal, of course, to spread maximum terror, fear, and trauma.
And in the event of a 9/11-style occurrence today, we would almost surely be less united as a nation around our televisions than around our computers and our phones; searching through Facebook for messages from friends and family. Mark Zuckerberg’s website, which was still two and a half years in the future on 9/11, would today almost certainly activate its “Safety Check” button for all of New York and Washington, DC, maybe even for the entire country, telling users to “Mark Yourself Safe.”
We would scour LinkedIn to determine if we knew anyone who worked at the companies in the impact zone, and we’d scroll through Twitter as a million rumors and hot takes bloomed—who did it, what the nation’s reaction should be, whose fault it all was. There would be Vox.com explainers about al-Qaeda and Heavy.com Fast Facts You Need to Know.
On Citizen, civilians would post their photos and videos of the attack, and Next Door would be flooded with reports of the missing. We would Google “Taliban” and end up reading Wikipedia to explain our new enemies to us, as Google Earth sleuths pointed out al-Qaeda’s training camps outside Kandahar.
The flood of information, of reports true, false, and somewhere in between, would overwhelm us. Even in 2001, the day was filled with chaos—reports of a car bomb at the State Department and of additional plane crashes and attacks in places like Cleveland, among other rumors—so it seems almost impossible to imagine how many unsubstantiated claims would spread online, some presumably helped along by online bots and trolls, others spread in fever swamps like 8Chan.
Beyond the spread of news itself, online life in the hours and days after a 9/11-type event today would play out in the cycles and rituals now familiar from many crises and tragedies of the digital age: People would tweet @Delta, @AmericanAir, and @united to wonder when their grounded planes would take off. In the days after an attack, the missing posters that once coated Manhattan storefronts would spread virally online. GoFundMe pages would spring up for fallen and missing first responders.
Imagining these rituals and how they would unfold, it’s hard not to feel that a tragedy as huge as 9/11 today might ultimately feel diminished, flattened by these well-worn responses and outrage cycles that unfold at ever-faster speeds.
Looking back, September 11 stands as so monumental, historic, and life-altering in part because experiencing tragedy collectively at such a nationalized and global scale was so new and unprecedented that day.
Eighteen years ago, 9/11 split our lives—dividing the world into before and after. It’s hard not to wonder, given all that has come since and the tools, apps, and social media that have grown to dominate our culture, whether today we wouldn’t simply fit even an event at the scale of 9/11 into our existing routines and rituals. Whether, rather than uniting together in a national moment, we would all put ourselves at the center of the story instead. It seems likely that today we would turn not to one another for comfort, to grieve as a nation, but instead each burrow even deeper into our now ever-present phones, scrolling, clicking, liking, and emoji-ing as the tragedy unfolded.
All Rights Reserved for Garrett M. Graff A