How did witnesses react in the moment to the phenomenon that we now call 9/11?

August 27, 2010
Online Video of 9/11
How did witnesses react in the moment to the phenomenon that we now call 9/11?

VIDEO Channel:

In an online video montage called “September 11, 2001 — As It Happened — The South Tower Attack,” the voices say, “Oh, my God.” They say, “Oh, my goodness” and “Oh, my word” and “Terrible!”

In the time it takes to gasp, the voices build a narrative with world-historical implications. “Another plane has just hit another building,” one says, and “That definitely looked like it was on purpose.”

The video is now included in “Rhetoric of 9/11,” a special exhibition of the online speech archive American Rhetoric, an immersive site produced by Michael Eidenmuller, a rhetoric connoisseur and professor at the University of Texas at Tyler. The montage is billed as an excerpt from a hard-to-find DVD called “September 11, 2001 — As It Happened — A Composite”; it shows heavily edited clips mainly from telecasts that appeared in New York City from 9:02 to 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Witnesses on location and in studios can be heard interpreting images of an explosion in Manhattan. The fact that the video represents an online excerpt of a film montage of digitally edited clips of television broadcasts of audio and video feeds means it’s almost pure art, editing and framing — a piece of rhetoric itself.

The witnesses’ off-the-cuff inferences about the day’s second plane crash are fascinating. So much new information — logistical, emotional, political — dawns on these off-guard brains at once. But they rise to meet the challenge. Watching “September 11, 2001 — As It Happened — The South Tower Attack,” which was uploaded in 2007, you can almost feel minds absorbing injury, cognitive immune systems springing into action and one of modern civilization’s master narratives being created.

At 9:02 newscasters are staring at video feeds of the still-erect twin towers. Shortly after a jetliner hit the north tower at 8:46, the channels have subbed live feeds of the smoking World Trade Center for their regular programming. Newscasters sound as if they are idling without enough new information.

And then something happens. Some feeds show a plane burrowing into the south tower and seeming to exit as a fireball. Other feeds just show the fireball. On every network some version of “Oh, my God” can be heard. But no one curses, wails or goes mute.

Newscasters who have the southern view up on their screens report that “a second plane” — which a WB11 newscaster mistakes precrash for “a police helicopter” — has hit the World Trade Center’s south tower. Charles Gibson on ABC seizes the story from an eyewitness reporter he has been debriefing and guns it: “You could see the plane come in, just from the right-hand side of the screen.” Gibson, who suddenly morphs from affable “Good Morning America” host to war reporter, locks down the story. “So this looks like it’s some kind of a concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center that is under way in downtown New York,” he says.

By contrast, the thoughts of Theresa Renaud, an eyewitness in a building at Eighth Avenue and 16th Street, go first to logistics. Speaking of the plane that just hit the south tower, Renaud says to Bryant Gumbel on CBS: “Flew right in the middle of it. Explosion. My God, it’s right in the middle of the building.” Then she skips a step and offers an inference: “That definitely looked like it was on purpose.”

What Gibson designates an “attack,” Pat Kiernan on NY1 deems “a dramatic development” and predicts, with characteristic understatement, “a serious evacuation.” On WNYW, the newscaster Jim Ryan is more expansive. With the clock still at 9:03, he delivers the risky if prescient verdict: “I think we have a terrorist act of proportions that we cannot begin to imagine at this juncture.”

The video on American Rhetoric also includes frightening close-range images of the second crash that weren’t broadcast at the time, notably a shot looking north at the south tower right above tree level. A stray piece of video plays over unconnected audio from NPR. The video-audio mismatch suggests the extent of the editing. This is a brief designed to remind us of what struck observers at the time as self-evident: that there is someone to blame and punish for the attacks of Sept. 11. After nine years of trying to figure out how to assign that blame, the eyewitness idea of “on purpose” now seems more complicated than ever.

YouTube-style montages and mash-ups have been an excellent tool for seeing and showing how rhetoric takes shape. Of course, these videos can themselves be polemical, and people use them to advance all kinds of tendentious theories. But even as the 9/11 conspiracy blogs seem to have moved on, the narrative of 9/11 — and especially the question of who is ultimately blameworthy and what retribution and prevention would or should look like — is still contested, as the recent debates over a proposed Islamic center near the site of the attacks in Manhattan make clear.

Is it possible that after nine years we still can’t do much better than describe that 2001 tragedy as having “proportions that we cannot begin to imagine”?


It’s a weird conceit of YouTube: call it the simulated fragment. Videos present themselves as excerpts of films, when the actual films can’t be found. “September 11, 2001 — As It Happened — A Composite” may or may not have been distributed as a film about Sept. 11, but self-styled excerpts are all over YouTube. Search by “September 11, 2001 — As It Happened.”

Jay Heinrichs, the author of “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion,” keeps a blog about rhetoric at

After Sept. 11, The Times published capsules of those who died in the attacks. Archived under “Portraits of Grief” on