Rumors abound in wake of attacks

False stories seen as expressions of Americans' fears

September 23, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN JOSE, Calif. - They came pouring in immediately after the terrorist attacks:

The World Trade Center destruction fulfilled a prophecy by 16th-century French seer Michel Nostradamus.

CNN footage of Palestinians celebrating was actually filed 10 years earlier.

An e-mail urged people to light candles at a specific time for a satellite photo.

All are false.

Urban legends are a part of everyday life, but in the days after the life-changing attacks of Sept. 11, these rumors are spreading at lightning speed. Although many of them are untrue, they have caused confusion and heightened fear in people already in deep shock from the attacks.

"I don't know what to believe or what to trust," said Nicole Wasowski, a 16-year-old at Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, Calif.

Since the terrorist events, e-mails to Barbara Mikkelson's rumor-debunking site,, have increased tenfold, and she's been contacted by people who are petrified by certain rumors.

"There have been so many rumors that have sprung up and struck a chord with people," said Mikkelson, who has been exposing false reports for the past eight years. "These rumors give voice to a fear lurking in so many that we are shivering on the brink of World War III."

She said the most popular rumor stems from a supposed Nostradamus prediction of the World Trade Center destruction. It said, "Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb, The third big war will begin when the big city is burning - Nostradamus 1654."

But Nostradamus died in 1566, and after searching through different Nostradamus Web sites, she could find no match to the e-mailed verse.

David Emery, a Bay Area rumor debunker, has received 200 to 250 e-mails a day, many from teachers relieved to finally know the truth.

"Spreading rumors ... has always been done," said Emery, whose site is "It's an aspect of human nature, to tell stories, and also to share the feeling of grief and outrage in a moment of catastrophe. It's kind of like a shadow news to complement the news."

Such e-mails have included numerology, adding the different flights to spell out 911 or linking United Airlines and American Airlines to make United States of America.

People are snapping up copies of Ricardo Arjona's song, "Mesas" (Messiah), which says the "Magnate of the Big Apple has committed suicide." Record representatives said the timing is pure coincidence.

Another e-mail making the rounds asks people to boycott soft drinks because Osama bin Laden is financing his attacks with investments in the gum arabic trade. But Emery said neither U.S. State Department nor the National Soft Drink Association has found evidence to support that.

"People are trying to make sense of something so large and so hard for us to comprehend, and sometimes people do that through numerology, cosmology of different kinds," said Misha Klein, a University of California, Berkeley anthropology senior graduate student.

Even news organizations have come under fire. Some people say an Associated Press altered a photo that some say shows a devil face in the smoking World Trade Center.

Responding to accusations that CNN used old footage of Palestinians cheering, CNN spokesman Dwight Murphy said a Reuters TV crew shot the scene Sept. 11 in East Jerusalem.

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