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The 9/11 Hoax That Wasn't35:42
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A frequently circulated viral photo, which shows a smiling kid in front of one of the burning World Trade Center towers (courtesy Underunderstood)
A frequently circulated viral photo, which shows a smiling kid in front of one of the burning World Trade Center towers (courtesy Underunderstood)

TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)

While we’re busy stuffing our faces over Thanksgiving, we thought we’d share a story from another great podcast: Underunderstood. They look into a photo that frequently goes viral on Reddit to figure out, once and for all, whether or not it’s a hoax.
Underunderstood is produced by Regina Dellea, Adrianne Jeffries, Billy Disney, and John Lagomarsino. You can find more episodes and information at underunderstood.com.

Reddit Links: 

-An r/pics post of the 9/11 photo
-Another r/pics post of the 9/11 photo

Other Links:

-The Underunderstood show notes with all pictures mentioned in the show

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory.

Amory Sivertson: Ben.

Ben: John...

John Lagomarsino: Hello.

Amory: Billy...

Billy Disney: Hi!

Ben: So clearly we have some special guests with us today. They are great and awesome. Their names are John Lagomarsino and Billy Disney and they make a podcast that we love called Underunderstood. John, what should people know about your fabulous show?

John: Underunderstood is a podcast that Billy and I make with two other co-hosts, Regina Delay and Adrian Jeffries. And the basic premise of it is that on every episode we find a question that the internet can’t answer. And we fill in the gaps and we do some reporting and hopefully by the end of an episode we’ve got the answer to that question and we can put it on our podcast back on the internet. And so the question that the internet couldn’t answer is now answered.

Ben: Will you guys tackle why everything is horrible all the time now?

Amory: That’s a big question, Ben.

John: Yeah that’s the next season finale.

Amory: Okay. Fair enough.

Ben: Perfect, consider me subscribed.

Amory: Well we brought you guys in today because we love Underunderstood, and I think our listeners are going to love Underunderstood too. And there’s an episode in particular that we wanted to feature for them. So this episode connects to Reddit, and a suspicious photograph, and 9/11. So Billy, without giving away too much, how did you find this story?

Billy: Yeah, this story came from my sister actually. A defining thing about our childhood, especially for people who are in our 30s, is that we always had internet access. And one thing my sister and I loved to do was debunk fake things on the internet. But there was one that we both remember very distinctly, which was an early viral photo called “Accidental Tourist” or “Tourist Guy,” which shows a guy standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center with a plane coming towards him. And this photo was debunked, but recently, almost two decades later, my sister was on Reddit and she sees someone sharing a very similar photo. And then she sees it again and again and it keeps making the rounds on Reddit. But unlike the “Tourist Guy,” she can’t find a good investigation into whether the photo is real or not. So we decided to look into it.

Amory: So she’s like bro, figure it out.

Billy: Yeah. I mean basically our listener base right now is just my sister, so we’re taking stories wherever we can get them.

Ben: Billy’s sister, this is a repeat for you I guess. But without further ado, let’s take a listen to your story. It’s called, “The 9/11 Hoax That Wasn’t.”

Adrianne Jeffries: The internet doesn’t have all the answers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find them. This is Underunderstood.

(Underunderstood episode starts)

Billy Disney: I’m Billy Disney.

Adrianne: I’m Adrianne Jeffries.

John Lagomarsino: I’m John Lagomarsino.

Regina Dellea: I’m Regina Dellea.

John: Today on the show, Billy becomes a 9/11 truther. Sort of.

Billy: So I have a photo here from September 11, 2001. This will also be on our website and it’s in the show notes for the episode. Could someone describe this photo?

John: Oh, wow. We’re looking at a photo of a kid and he’s standing on… I think it’s probably the walkway next to the West Side Highway in Manhattan, and the camera is facing south, right? So we’ve got the kid in the foreground, he’s wearing around his neck a pair of yellow binoculars and behind him we can see down at the bottom of Manhattan the Twin Towers are on fire. Also, there are a bunch of people walking away from the Trade Center towards the camera in this photo not looking particularly panicked.

Regina: And the kid is just kind of like like he’s not smiling, but he’s just like he’s not reacting either.

John: He’s just looking around. Yeah. None of this suggests that anyone in the photo thinks that there’s an emergency happening behind them. It’s just really odd because… I don’t know. I have a lot of questions about what’s going on here. It’s unnatural looking.

Billy: Have any of you seen this image before?

John: No.

Adrianne: No.

Billy: So my sister sent this in, actually. She saw it on Reddit. She actually said she’s seen it on Reddit a bunch of times. It will recirculate. But whenever she sees it she tries to look up and see if it’s real or not and she can’t find anything. All she can find is this Snopes article about a similar photo called Accidental Tourist, which was a viral photo of a guy standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center with a plane coming towards him. And that photo was debunked, but unlike that photo no one has ever really fact-checked this one. So what would you guess if you guys had to say whether this photo was real or fake?

John: Faked.

Billy: Why is that?

John: Because of just the stance if everyone in it.

Billy: Yeah, he’s chill. The people are just like walking rather casually.

John: Why they stop to take the photo?

Billy: Right.

John: With the kid in it.

Regina: Like somebody would have turned around and looked at it.

John: Also, why would you pose the kid in front of the World Trade Center as it’s burning?

Adrianne: I think also it’s… There’s a long tradition of hoaxes on Reddit in order to get karma.

Billy: Right.

Adrianne: There’s so many hoaxes on Reddit and people have gotten to the point where they start to assume that everything is a hoax.

Billy: Right. Yeah, and that’s actually like exactly what my sister did.

Adrianne: Are you going to tell us that this photo is actually real?

Billy: I don’t know. My sister sent this to me. She said I keep seeing it pop up on Reddit — it pops up all the time. And so I went to Pennsylvania, where she lives, to talk to her about it.

(In Billy's family's pinball arcade)

Billy: Hey Lisa.

Lisa: Hi.

Billy: My parents own and operate a pinball arcade in Malvern, PA, by the way, so if you hear a bunch of background noise, that’s why.

Adrianne: Sweet.

Billy: You sent me this photo. I have it here.

Lisa: Yeah. There’s so many things that are just weird about it and kind of perfect about it.

Billy: So your assumption at first was “oh this is fake.”

Lisa: Yeah.

Billy: So the rest of my family starts coming over and this will give you some insight into where my inherent sense of skepticism comes from.

Billy: Hold on so my family has gathered around now. They’re all giving their input on this.

Bill: What is it?

Billy: This is a photo Lisa found on Reddit. Do you think it’s real?

Bill: Well, it’s hard to tell.

Sherry: This building was put in afterwards in the back. So this was all okay. What was put in is the building. Why is the child not looking at what is happening? How can he turn around and…

Lisa: No one is, though. Do you see anyone looking at it?

Billy: So honestly at this point the interview is completely beyond my control. I don’t know what was going on. I mean, my family is supposed to be running a business at this place. But all of a sudden this was like their entire focus. They were just super analyzing this photo.

Bill: The shadow definitely doesn’t match where the sun is.

Billy: Okay, so my dad is a full-blown shadow truther.

Bill: If the sun is in the foreground, you’re seeing the back end of the tower there?

Billy: So in the photo, it looks like the sun is behind him. It might not be the sun. There’s a big ball of light back there. And my family noticed that the shadows don’t really match up with where the sun would be casting shadows. So they were very suspicious of this.

Bill: And it looks like it’s brightly lit. But then the building next to it looks like it’s dark.

Sherry: You’re saying everything I’ve already said.

Bill: Sorry.

Billy: Okay, well this photo ruined my parent’s marriage.

Regina: It lasted so long.

Billy: Right. I know. This photo was the thing to tear it apart.

Regina: I’m sure.

Billy: Anyway, we narrowed it down to six questions, basically.
1. Who is the kid?
2. Is the photo even real?
3. If it’s real, why did they take the picture?
4. Why is no one reacting?
5. Why isn’t it more famous?
6. Why don’t the Shadows matchup?
Yeah, so.

Adrianne: Find him find him.

Billy: Anybody want to go to Tribeca with me?

Regina: I’ll go.

Billy: Great. Maybe we’ll stop at the Balloon Saloon.

Regina: Oh, perfect.

John: Coming up, Billy counts to six again.

Billy: Hey everybody.

John: Hey.

Regina: Hey.

Billy: I have answers. So question #1 — #1 was who is the boy in the photograph? That question was actually pretty easy to answer. The reason being one time this photo was posted on Reddit, someone actually chimed in. Adrianne, you want to read this?

Adrianne: Okay. “My name is Austin Sansone and I live in Tribeca, which is in the lower west side of Manhattan. And this is a picture of me on 9/11. I was four years old and the picture was taken alongside the West Side Highway that morning. I have the actual photo which I will post a picture of when I get home for all of you doubting whether this is real or photoshopped. I promise you that it is sadly very real.” And then he said, “For all those who thought it was fake. Here you go. This is me with one of the original photos printed. I also have the negative somewhere.”

Billy: So can someone describe the photo that he linked?

John: Okay, the photo that you link to is… it’s a guy sitting in a chair holding a piece of eight and a half by eleven paper written in, well, presumably handwritten on it is “Austin Sansone, May 29th, 2015.” He’s holding that in his left hand and his right hand he’s holding the photo that we saw kind of in front of the eight and a half by eleven sheet of paper. This doesn’t prove anything.

Adrianne: Couldn’t he just have printed that photo out?

John: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Billy: It does, if you do blow it up, though, it does look cleaner.

John: It could be the same kid for sure.

Billy: Yeah, and I also found additional photos of him as a child, actually. Hold on. Wait, let me see if I can…

John: Oh, are we on the same forum? Is it cluesfourm.info?

Billy: Oh, no. I did find that website though and some people were saying that they thought the kid looked like… oh, they link to… who was it? It was some celebrity.

John: Mark Lester.

Billy: Yes, right. Yeah, Mark Lester who played the title role in Oliver!, the musical film that won best picture in 1968. How he got to Tribeca in the year 2001, I do not know. What I was actually talking about was some photographer’s website that comes up when you search his name and it’s this guy as a kid, slightly older. So there are other photos of him as a kid online. Everything here seems to check out. And if you look at the dates on everything, the dates line up. And so I think we have enough to say, for now at least, that he’s a real person and his name is Austin Sansone, and he is really the person in the photo. But that brings us the question #2: is the photo real? Meaning, is he really standing in front of the burning World Trade Center buildings.

(News music plays)

Tom Brokaw: Terrorists declare war on the United States, hijacking jetliners, crashing them into New York’s World Trade Towers. Downtown New York in chaos America wondering, “what’s next?”

Billy: Despite the tremendous amount of tragedy and shock on September 11th, there were still plenty of hoaxes ⁠— like that Accidental Tourist photo. So it’s plausible that this is a fake. So that’s why I hit up Austin directly to see if he could prove that the photo was real. Austin responded to me on Instagram. He said, “Billy. I think I’d love the opportunity to be a part of this. Honestly, I think part of me has always wanted to tell the story behind the photo after I saw that people were questioning the validity of it. That was the only reason I ever replied to the Reddit thread in the first place.”
So basically from there we arrange a time to meet up and he says that he can bring his mother with him, who is the one who took the photo.

Adrianne: A witness.

Billy: A witness. And also someone old enough to remember what was actually happening. So Regina and I arranged to meet him at the exact location where the photo was taken. But it was raining that day, so we switched to a local cafe. And then the cafe was closed for a private event. And so at this point I also realized the microphone I brought is broken.

Adrianne: Nooooo.

Billy: So, it’s like the universe doesn’t want me to know what really happened on September 11th. But fortunately, Regina swoops in and she got us access to 368, Casey Neistat’s studio in Manhattan.

John: Fancy.

Billy: But they eventually come in and we sit down in this little area and basically start talking.

(In 368 talking to Austin and Susan)

Billy: So Austin and, sorry I didn’t get your name…

Susan Lyall: Susan.

Billy: Susan. Got it.

Billy: So again, Austin brought his mother, Susan, who is actually a very successful costume designer for film and TV.

Regina: She was very cool.

Billy: Yeah.

Susan: My name is Susan Lyall. I live in Tribeca. I’m a costume designer and I am the photographer of the 9/11 photo that brought us all here today.

Austin: And I’m the subject, as the son.

Billy: So they live in Tribeca just a few blocks from where this photo was taken ⁠— supposedly taken ⁠— which is, they say, along the little walkway park that’s along the West Side Highway, as John speculated.

John: Thank you.

Billy: They seem to be authentic, they seem to really have lived there, he seems to be the person in the photo. So I just kind of cut right to the chase and I get right to the second question: Is this photo real?

Billy: So before we get too deep, I guess I should ask you guys brought some stuff. I suppose I should ask for the proof that the photo is real. So you have the actual prints from that day as well as some other ones?

Susan: I have a couple of things. This is the proof from the negatives. So there’s miniscule prints in line showing you what was contained on the roll. I have had this photograph duplicated a number of times and hence the negatives are just somewhere out of my grasp at the moment, but here is the actual photo of the day on the day.

Billy: Do you mind if I hold the photo and look at it? Wow, yeah, okay. So this is the exact photo…

Susan: Right

Billy: …that I saw shared online.

Billy: Okay, so I’m sharing with the three of you the photos that Susan shared with me.

Adrianne: Oooh. There’s a lot.

Billy: Austin and I went to a FedEx location afterwards and scanned them. The first thing you’ll see is a contact sheet, which is like thumbnails of all the photos.

John: I remember these so well. This looks legit to me. It’s one of these grids.

Billy: It says the date it was…

John: Yeah, the date of the of the contact sheet at least is 9/26/01.

Adrianne: The photo of the kid is 11a.

John: This is a much better print of this than the one that was previously online.

Adrianne: Well one other observation is that after that photo, it does seem like she starts to pay more attention to the burning building. There are a couple shots that are just focused on the building with all the smoke billowing out of the top.

Billy: Yeah, and you’ll notice with these photos, there’s little notes attached. There’s little Post-it notes.

Susan: Looking for the negatives, I found what I sent to my mother who has passed away. But these were in her letters and this is what I sent to her. So I sent it to her because it was hard for her to imagine but not that hard because she had lived, she grew up in Holland which was an occupied country, and in an odd way my parents, more than any of my friends or anyone else I knew, actually understood what I felt like that day.

Billy: So she made these little Post-it notes showing different things. You’ll even see there’s one after the towers collapsed where she drew a little picture of, like, “here’s where the towers were.”

John: “Should be here,” is what it says with the little towers.

Billy: Yeah, and there’s a hole there. But yeah, you’re right. They get much more sort of somber after that.

Adrianne: And she also is retreating. They go back to their house.

Billy: Right, there’s an obvious mood shift in the photos. But based on having seen these ⁠— which will be on our website by the way, which will be on underunderstood.com, anyone can check them out ⁠— based on these photos, you would say, what? What would your inclination be now? If at first it was they were fake. What would you say now?

John: These look very real.

Billy: Yeah. So question 1: who is in the photo? Austin Sansone. 2. Is the photo real? Now that we’ve seen these it seems to be real ⁠— we’ll get further into the evidence but I think we can say a tentative yes. So that brings us to the question #3: why did they take the picture?

Billy: You told me that this was one of your earliest memories. Can you tell me about that? What do you remember about the photo itself?

Austin: Yeah, so well, in terms of the photo itself, I don’t remember the exact moment it was taken. I remember the context leading up to it, essentially. It was the first day of pre-K, or nursery school, for me. I was sitting in our living room. I was eating a bowl of cereal or breakfast in general and I was watching Dragon Tales on TV.

(Dragon Tales theme song plays)

Susan: I think it was Cyberchase.

(Cyberchase theme song plays)

Austin: It was Dragon Tales. I remember Cyberchase was a favorite in kindergarten onwards. I don’t think I liked the math enough at the time.

Susan: So anyway, it was his first day of pre-K and they phase the children in. The first group of children go at nine o’clock in the second group of children go to 11 o’clock, and he was in the 11 o’clock group.

(Dragon Tales dialoge plays "I wish, I wish with all my heart to fly with dragons")

Austin: I remember my mother running over and grabbing the clicker and being immediately furious that my television for the morning was being canceled.

(news plays)

Vince Cellini: Sean, we’re on the air right now. What can you tell us about the situation?

Sean Murtagh: I just witnessed a plane that appeared to be cruising slightly lower than normal altitude over New York City and it appears to have crashed into — I don’t know which Tower it is, but it hit directly in the middle of one of the World Trade Center towers.

Austin: I remember her switching to the news and I remember the building on the television and then her telling me I had to get my shoes on.

Sean Murtagh: I can see flames now coming out the side of the building and smoke continues to billow.

Susan: I recall there was sort of a static happened and there were a lot of sirens and you were complaining because it was static and then the phone rang because it was my husband calling, and so I was sort of “I don’t know what’s wrong with the television,” answering the phone, and running to the front to see what all of the noise was about. And that’s when my husband explained two planes have hit the towers and I went back, switched the television, and then thought, “we have to go outside and see what this is,” because it’s…

Billy: So you were able to see it on television, right then

Susan: Yes. It came back and there is that decision of whether to watch it or not on television that every parent probably had to make that day, and I turned it off, went outside, grabbed my camera…

Austin: Grabbed my binoculars…

Susan: Yes. Went outside to see what it was. You just didn’t really understand it but really the commotion — and of course Canal street, because we’re below Canal street, everything is closed off. Only responding vehicles are coming in, and it seems really big. Bigger than usual. And honestly until you got out there, it was kind of hard to just really see it to be honest. So when I took the picture I thought, “this is some picture I’m taking right now.” And I also thought about taking another one, but I have to say, it seems somehow disrespectful? Or voyeuristic, or something? It didn’t seem right and yet I did want to take one.

Adrianne: I think when this photo popped up on Reddit, the context that people were applying to it was that it was like The Accidental Tourist photo where it was like, “I was just taking a photo of this person and then happened to capture this event in the background.” But what she’s saying is that, in fact, they knew it was happening and they went out to take a picture of it specifically.

Regina: Exactly. And it was like there was this rush and then people thought it was over.

Billy: Yeah, so that brings us to the fourth question, actually, which is “why is no one reacting?” So here’s what Susan had to say.

Susan: Everyone was moving quite calmly at this moment because it hadn’t collapsed. There were all kinds of sirens. It was terrible, but it seemed like the worst was over and people would be saved and everyone had been told to leave and people are walking. You can see in the first photo people are walking. Some of them are carrying folders. They’re carrying their briefcases and their bags. And so they’ve left, but assume they’re going back. It’s like a fire drill, or something. Like a horrible, horrible fire drill.

Austin: Which is something that was, I think, always questioned by people online — is the fact that no one was running. And yeah, maybe you see some more horrifying photos of people running, but those typically, at least what I’ve seen, are people running at the base or very close to the buildings. We were probably 11, 12 blocks north of the towers at the time? Maybe more.

Susan: Yeah.

Billy: I think the other thing people pointed out was like, “oh why is no one looking at it?” But we can see it, since we can see more clearly in the original photograph here, you can actually see it appears there is someone, a man, I believe, standing behind you Austin who’s just staring at the building, presumably in disbelief.

Susan: It was odd, because people were fairly calm there was, it was odd. No question.

Billy: To answer the question, “why is no one reacting?” she basically says people didn’t know what was about to happen. And again, I think that is like one of the things about this photograph that really resonates with people, is it does sort of represent this eye of the storm moment with the events of 9/11 where this horrific thing happened, but we didn’t really know how horrific it could get. There was a sort of lull after it happened — people trying to collect their thoughts, figure out what was going on.

Television: They come by they say, “what happened, what happened?” And you just got to say something hit the building and then something hit both.

Susan: We started to head back and I took another picture here. I’ve written on a Post-It, “we’ve left the river, crossing the median going home.” About two minutes later the first Tower collapsed.

Television: A huge explosion now raining debris on all of us. We better get out of the way!

Billy: They decided to leave and they took a photo as they were crossing the median and she has the time stamp on it and two minutes later is when the towers collapsed.

Susan: Anyway, we had to go, of course, back inside to see it on TV. Anyway.

Billy: So that brings us to question #5: why isn’t the photo more famous? Do you guys have any guesses for this one, by the way?

Adrianne: There’s a lot of photos of 9/11.

John: It’s also a strange tone for a 9/11 photo to have.

Adrianne: Right.

John: He looks like a pretty happy kid with these bright yellow binoculars.

Billy: Yeah, and also I think it was very personal. If you look at that contact sheet again, you’ll notice the date of the top when she got it developed.

Adrianne: 9/26?

Billy: Yeah, so it’s like a full two weeks after this happened. And basically, she said that she just couldn’t bring herself to get them developed, and she went on to explain that they actually did have some opportunities to showcase the photo. But again, they just felt too strange to her.

Susan: There was a call for photographs afterwards and there was a gallery in SoHo, they were looking for interesting photographs. And I can’t tell you the number of people, people who had known of the photograph and said, “you should send that in, you should…” But why would I send that in? I just didn’t feel right about it, to be honest. It just seemed opportunistic.

Billy: She was just kind of worried about exploiting the situation. She obviously knows the power an image can have, working in film, and that was too much the process. She didn’t want the photo to be famous.

Adrianne: How did the photo get online?

Billy: Well interesting you ask. So Austin didn’t really process how interesting the photo was until he was older, and he talked some about that.

Austin: That photo my mom would occasionally show to family, family friends, and the reactions were always so significant. And to be honest, until I reached a certain age I don’t think I really fully understood why.

Billy: So while Austin and his family were safe on 9/11, the same can’t be said for everyone in their neighborhood. Susan showed me a photo of a vigil outside of the firehouse that they would walk by every day. And there’s a little note under it that says they lost 11 men. And so every year the school Austin went to would have a memorial service on September 11th to remember all the people who are lost. And sometime around middle school, the significance of that started to sink in.

Austin: That was around the time when I shared it on Facebook first for the first time.

Billy: A few years go by. He doesn’t hear about the image that much and he decides to post it privately to one of his own accounts again.

Austin: The second time I shared it was two years later in 2014, this time on my very fledgling Instagram at the time and…

Billy: How’s your Instagram doing now?

Austin: I mean fledgling more in the sense that not many people had it, or at least it was new to me, I suppose.

Billy: So he post it to Instagram. He gets some comments and likes — just some normal engagement from his friends.
And then a year or so goes by and suddenly a friend is like, “I saw your photo somewhere.”

Austin: A friend of mine, actually, from elementary school, who I hadn’t spoken to in a long time reached out to me of all places on Facebook Messenger and said, “Hey, I just saw this photo of you on Reddit. People are asking if it’s real. You should go on there and claim it.” And I was like, “First off, what’s Reddit? Second off, what do you mean ‘claim it?’ And why are they even questioning it?” And that was kind of my initial reaction. And so I clicked on the link. He had sent me. I opened it up and it was a whole Reddit, I guess, stream you call it, of people talking about this photo. And honestly, I don’t think I ever would have thought twice about it, let alone responded to it. I literally created a Reddit account in order to respond to it — and that was mainly because people were questioning its validity.

Adrianne: I just reverse image searched this because I was curious about whether the original post would come up. and someone posted it on Reddit yesterday in a meme template.

Billy: What? Really? What’s the meme?

Adrianne: It has Austin labeled as “me.” And then the tower is labeled, “my life falling apart.”

Billy: Oh my God.

Adrianne: The commenters don’t think it’s funny.

Billy: Okay. Well, that’s good.

Adrianne: A couple of commenters are saying that this photo is also posted on a subreddit called alternateangles, which is a little more appropriate. It is big historical events. Photos from an angle you’re not used to seeing.

Billy: It’s funny that it’s in all of these places but according to him no one has actually ever reached out to verify that it’s real.

Austin: Two years ago, or one year ago almost, when I was in college and a Yahoo article or an AOL article came up and.
It was on the page when you opened up Yahoo or something and it even shows the photo I took literally in our kitchen of me holding the photos.

Susan: I took that photo, too.

Austin: Yes.

Susan: I’d just like my photo credit of this one please.

Billy: So this journalist didn’t reach out to you to verify…

Austin: No. I had no idea this article was being put together.

Billy: Not only has no one reached out to verify that it’s real, but no one’s reached out about what is the ultimate question, at least from my perspective, our question number 6: why don’t the shadows line up?

Austin: The one shared online is a photo I took of the photo with my iPhone.

Billy: But I think you took it with the flash on or there was an overhead light or something and so…

Austin: Oh, my desk lamp is above. I remember that because it was glaring off the photo and I was like, well, you can’t really see it just looks all fuzzy I guess.

Billy: That orb of light was not the sun. It was an overhead light. It was his desk lamp or something. And not only do they have a very clear copy of that photo from the day. They also had photos where they had returned to that exact same spot on different days sort of as he was growing up. So I’m going to play this and you can open up folder two.

John: Oh my god.

Susan: So when it was 9/11/11, we went out and took another picture. It’s as exact as we could figure it out.

Billy: That’s pretty darn close. Looking like a young heartthrob, too. Those curls?

Billy: So this image will be on our website as well. But this is in 2011 on the 10-year anniversary of September 11th. This is a photo of Austin as a young teenager in the exact same spot.

John: This is crazy that they went to do this. This is wild.

Austin: That park, after they finished it, has been a place where we walked up and down every single day growing up to soccer games, to school. And honestly, every time I come home from school, I find myself going out there and sitting there. It is my favorite place, or one of my favorite places, in New York City.

Susan: I call it our Tribeca backyard, but…

Billy: Wow. Yeah. That’s really incredible.

Billy: Okay, so now, all in all, I would say this is pretty convincing stuff, right?

John: There’s no question. This is all real.

Billy: So with all this evidence in hand, and in the spirit of returning to the scene of something tragic, I went back to see my family in Pennsylvania. And the conspiracy theories immediately just started flowing out again.

(At Billy's family's Pinball Gallery)

Billy: We are back here at the Pinball Gallery. My mother has the photo up again and she is analyzing it. What were you saying?

Sherry: I said it looks like a nun back there

Billy: And that’s suspicious to you?

Sherry: Shouldn’t she be praying with someone?

Billy: Well, I have some answers.

Billy: Basically item-by-item I start to go through all of the questions that they had.

Billy: He just took a photo of it with his phone and…

Lisa: Oh it was the the flash?

Billy: No, it wasn’t the flash. There was an overhead light in the room.

Bill: What happened to the nun?

Lisa: This was what mom thought was a nun.

Billy: I just want to clarify, what my mother thought was a nun…

Lisa: It’s just a lady.

Billy: It’s just a lady.

Lisa: But the sun’s hitting her shirt.

Billy: That’s clearly not a conspiracy anymore now that we confirmed that the woman is not a nun.

Billy: I showed them all of the photos, I relayed Austin and Susan’s personal account of the day, and now that, you know, all that was suddenly real — like these people were real, their story was real — the tone suddenly shifted.

Sherry: I feel a lot more sad now.

Lisa: It’s a lot heavier now that you know it’s real.

Billy: Sorry, you said you feel a lot more sad now? You almost look like you’re tearing up a bit.

Lisa: She did say are the reason she didn’t want to leave in the first place was because she didn’t want to think of a kid being there and having that memory so now she…

Sherry: There wasn’t much more I could do besides tear up when we went through all that and saw it then. So just takes you back.

Lisa: Well you were in school, right? Like you couldn’t watch it because you were watching little, tiny kids.

Sherry: Watching kids that that age, then the next day watching them build towers with their blocks and knock them down and try to find a balance between not talking about it and talking enough to help them through it.

Lisa: I think it’s just…

Billy: Do you think it was a bad idea to try to record a podcast in a pinball arcade?

Lisa: Yeah. I told you that when you started.

Billy: Okay.

Amory: That was an episode of Underunderstood. If you want more answers to questions the internet can’t answer, subscribe to Underunderstood wherever you get your podcasts.

Ben: Yeah these guys are like internet mystery heroes, so we really highly recommend the show and you should listen. Endless Thread will be back next week with a regular episode. Ok bye!

Josh Swartz Twitter Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Josh is a producer for podcasts and new programs at WBUR.

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James Lindberg Production Assistant

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