Ticket agent haunted by brush with 9/11 hijackers
Portland Press Herald (Maine); 3/6/2005; DAVID HENCH Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
Ticket agent haunted by brush with 9/11 hijackers
Byline: DAVID HENCH Staff Writer
Memo: WHY PORTLAND? INVESTIGATORS SCRAMBLED in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, to determine why the alleged mastermind of the plot and another of the hijackers rented a car in Boston and drove to Portland only to fly back to Boston the morning of the attacks. AT FIRST, authorities worried there might be a terrorist cell in the Portland area. But investigators found no evidence of it. THE 9/11 COMMISSION concluded the most "plausible theory" for the trip to Portland was so the hijackers would draw less attention at Boston's Logan Airport. A BRIEF EXCHANGE between Mohamed Atta and a Portland Jetport ticket agent lends credence to that theory. According to recently declassified documents, Atta apparently had been led to believe he could receive a boarding pass for his connecting flight in Boston at check-in in Portland.; "I looked in (Atta's) eyes, and he just looked angry. I just got an uncomfortable feeling." Michael Tuohey former ticket agent at Portland International Jetport
Michael Tuohey sobbed with grief after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also felt guilt.
A U.S. Airways ticket agent at the time, Tuohey had handed boarding passes to Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz Alomari that morning as they rushed to make their flight at Portland International Jetport.
In the days after Atta and his fellow suicide hijackers killed close to 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, Tuohey held himself at least partly responsible.
He was suspicious of them, he said, but did nothing. Later, as he watched news reports of the towers crumbling, of people jumping from the skyscraper windows to avoid being burned alive, he blamed himself.
"In your mind you're saying, `Why didn't you react? Why didn't you do something?' " Tuohey said during an interview at his home in Scarborough. "You just have that torturous thing pulling your mind apart."
Tuohey has found some peace in the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, which determined that the FBI, CIA and other branches of the U.S. government bore a far greater responsibility for the attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon, that their lack of communication contributed to the inability to stop the attacks.
Tuohey is telling his story now because recently declassified material not included with the 9/11 Commission's public report uses his brief exchange with Atta to shed light on why the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot chose to fly from Portland rather than Boston.
Atta most likely wanted to avoid having all 10 hijackers arrive at Boston's Logan International Airport at roughly the same time, the report says. The information gleaned from Tuohey and released last month showed that Atta expected to be checked through to American Airlines Flight 11 and that he became angry when he was told he could not avoid checking in again in Boston.
Tuohey remembers that anger vividly.
"He looks at me and says, `I thought there was one-step check- in. . . .They told me one-step check-in,' " Tuohey said. "I looked in this guy's eyes, and he just looked angry. I just got an uncomfortable feeling."
Tuohey, 58, worked as a ticket agent for the airlines for more than 30 years, 18 of them in Portland. He retired last year
On Sept. 11, 2001, he showed up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for the morning rush along with three others working the ticket counter.
"The busiest part of the day is the first two and a half hours. We had five or six flights between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.," he said.
Tuohey was working the preferred customers line, where the frequent travelers and high-end fliers get quick service. The line was empty, so he told a colleague he planned to step out back for a cigarette break.
Then he spotted two young men come in and motioned them to his station.
"At first I was looking down at the computer. I said, `You're cutting it close,' " he said, noting it was 5:40 and the flight left at 6 a.m. The men were flying first class to Los Angeles, making a connection in Boston.
"Got any bags?" Tuohey asked.
They hoisted two pieces of luggage toward the counter. Tuohey could not know at the time that the luggage contained a hand-held electronic flight computer, a simulator manual for Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft, and a handwritten document in Arabic titled "In the name of God `all mighty,' Death Certificate."
Tuohey asked the standard security questions, which he'd asked thousands of travelers:
"Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on board the aircraft?"
"Has any item you're carrying been out of your control since the time you packed them?"
Tuohey then checked their driver's licenses, both issued in Florida.
"I look at the younger fellow first because he was a little taller. He just looked goofy."
Then his eyes locked on Atta.
"It just sent chills through you. You see his picture in the paper (now). You see more life in that picture than there is in flesh and blood," Tuohey said.
Then Tuohey went through an internal debate that still haunts him.
"I said to myself, `If this guy doesn't look like an Arab terrorist, then nothing does.' Then I gave myself a mental slap, because in this day and age, it's not nice to say things like this," he said. "You've checked in hundreds of Arabs and Hindus and Sikhs, and you've never done that. I felt kind of embarrassed."
It wasn't just Atta's demeanor that caught Tuohey's attention.
"When I looked at their tickets, they had first-class, one-way tickets - $2,500 tickets. Very unusual," he said. "I guess they're not coming back. Maybe this is the end of their trip."
Then he told Atta, who was handling the transaction, that he would have to check in with the American Airlines ticket counter in Boston.
"It looked like he was going to step forward," Tuohey said, "and he whipped around and said something to the kid in Arabic. I think he knew if he gave me a hard time, he was going to miss that flight."
Later, Atta and Alomari were seen at Logan asking directions to the American terminal.
WRESTLING WITH GUILT
In Portland, the men's baggage tickets and boarding passes had been generated at 5:43 a.m. Three hours later, one of the counter agents from United Airlines broke the news that a jet had crashed into the World Trade Center.
"Your jaw dropped," Tuohey said. "They gave me the American Airlines flight number, and my heart sank.."
He told a co-worker of his discomfort about Atta and Alomari. "I said, `I checked in two guys for the flight, and I thought they were terrorists and now I feel bad for them.' "
A few minutes later, he learned about the second flight.
"I just knew. My gut told me there was something wrong with this guy. It was enervating. Your stomach tied up in a knot."
One of Tuohey's co-workers called the FBI, and Tuohey went home. His house was empty. His wife, a flight attendant, had been stranded elsewhere when all commercial aircraft were grounded.
He had been home, watching the news, for less than an hour when he was called back to work to speak with an FBI agent about the two men who had connected with the American flight via Portland.
Tuohey asked about the security camera behind his counter position, noting it would have caught the men's picture as they dealt with him. But he was told that camera was broken and had been out of service for some time.
As he watched the security video taken at the passenger screening area upstairs, he picked out the two men without a doubt. They were no longer wearing the coats and ties they had on when they approached the counter. Tuohey figures they must have taken them off on the way to screening and tucked them into their carry-ons.
Over the next couple of days, like millions of other Americans, Tuohey was riveted to the television news. Unlike the rest of the country, he was wracked by guilt at the thought he could have done something to stop it.
He contacted his company's employee assistance program, and for the first time in his life, he says, he sought out a counselor. It didn't help. He got better results when he called his mother, who helped ease his conscience.
Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood, whose detectives interviewed Tuohey after the attack, said he would have been surprised if anyone in Tuohey's position had taken action.
"At that point in time the, the United States of America was not under attack on our homeland," Chitwood said. "You can't beat yourself up to death. What was he going to report, and who was he going to report it to?"
A few weeks later, another investigator came by Tuohey's house and showed him a large number of pictures and asked him to point out the men he had waited on that day.
"I went right to Atta," Tuohey said. "It's like the skull on a poison bottle. There's no mistaking that face."
Alomari took longer because a large number of the photos were of young, similar-looking men, he said.
At the time of the attacks, Tuohey was reluctant to talk publicly about his interaction with the hijackers, worried his failure to act could make him the target of lawsuits.
During his initial interview with the FBI, he asked that his name be kept confidential.
"All these people just got killed. They're going to sue me," he reasoned.
Tuohey is mentioned in the first footnote of the 9/11 Commission report, though his name is misspelled. His interactions with Atta and Alomari received scant public attention in the months and years following the attack, although he recently recounted his story on CNN.
Tuohey worked for three more years at the U.S. Airways ticket counter before retiring. His experience did not fill him with suspicion, but he was not shy about asking questions. Twice his iniquiries led to arrests, not for airline security issues but for outstanding arrest warrants.
"I will never ignore my instincts again," he said vehemently.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
Caption: Abdul Aziz Alomari Mohamed Atta AP file photo Mohamed Atta,
right, and Abdul Aziz Alomari pass through airport security at
Portland International Jetport on Sept. 11, 2001, in this photo
taken from a surveillance tape.
Copyright 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.