Urban legends follow disaster

Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2001

NEW YORK -- Did you hear about the police officer who miraculously ''surfed'' debris down a collapsing World Trade Center tower? How about Satan's face revealed in smoke billowing from the doomed buildings?

Spread by word of mouth and e-mail, a lot of dubious and outright false information has popped up since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

''I think that people fall for this stuff because people are trying to make sense of these disasters,'' said Kevin Christopher of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal near Buffalo.

Some of the tales that have circulated are the instant bits of folklore sometimes referred to as urban legends. One story describes a Port Authority officer caught high up in Trade Center tower as it collapsed, surviving by riding the debris all the way down.

In one version of the story, he was on the 82nd floor and broke both his legs. Frank Pita, a spokesman for the Port Authority, said Tuesday the report is unconfirmed and the agency suspects it is not true.

E-mails about Nostradamus, the 16th century French soothsayer credited by some with predicting Hitler's ascent and the French Revolution, now credit him with foreseeing the Trade Center attack.

A version of one cited quatrain reads in part: ''The third big war will begin when the big city is burning.'' And another reads: ''In the city of york there will be a great collapse.''

Critics say Nostradamus wrote his predictions so vaguely that it is easy to retrofit facts to the prediction after an event. As for the quoted quatrains, Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband runs the Urban Legends Reference Pages on the Internet, said Nostradamus didn't write either one.

Another e-mail circulating sees the number 11 as significant. It notes that the attack occurred on Sept. 11. The first plane to strike the towers was Flight 11. Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year and 2+5+4=11. Also, the towers resembled a big 11 before they were felled.

Then there's the face in the smoke. Some have claimed the profile of a face can be made out in dark smoke above the Trade Center in an Associated Press photograph taken last week. This has been called ''the face of Satan'' on some Internet postings.

Skeptics say the face is no different from someone seeing images in clouds -- they are seeing patterns where there is randomness. Vin Alabiso, an AP vice president and the news cooperative's executive photo editor, has said that the photo was untouched and that the AP has a strict policy that prohibits the alteration of the content of a photo in any way.

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On the Net:

Urban Legends Reference Pages: http://www.snopes.com

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: http://www.csicop.org



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