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9/11 Started Here | Yankee Classic

Yankee Plus Dec 2015


9/11 Started Here | Yankee Classic
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seating areaAfter all those years working the dawn flights at Logan, and then for 16 more at Portland, Mike Tuohey still awakens by 4 a.m., searching for first light over the river that cuts through the marsh. He loves the stillness. The house he shares with his second wife, a flight attendant, rises from the tall grasses like a handsome boat; from its windows, he watches seabirds dart over the wildlife preserve that stretches to the ocean. This is when everything seems right. The promise of a day ahead — working his land, coaxing a garden from the marsh. “It’s where I find peace,” he says.

He’s 60, and until the airline downsized two years ago, he’d been with US Airways (formerly Allegheny Airlines) since he was 21, just out of the Army. “I was going to work until I died at that counter,” he says. “I loved my work.” He grew up poor in Roxbury, Massachusetts, an Irish-Italian kid who left school at 16, full of attitude and street smarts. “I’m the first in my family to own a house,” he says with pride. “I had five brothers and my father had five brothers, and I was the first.”

Each day at his home in Scarborough, Maine, begins the same: At dawn he walks down a dirt road to collect the Boston Globe from his mailbox. He walks back. He flicks on CNN and sips coffee. He lights a Winston, the first of many. This day promises to be gorgeous — warm, blue sky, sea breezes.

He’s expecting a visitor, a reporter, at noon who will ask about a day five years ago, a day Mike Tuohey remembers began so beautifully. “The kind of morning when you sniff the air and think, ‘Oh, it’s getting cooler now.’ A spectacular morning. The sky the bluest of blues. A day so perfect you’d never want to be anywhere else.”

That morning, September 11, 2001, he drove six miles to the Portland International Jetport. He was dressed smartly in his blue US Airways jacket, crisp white shirt, red and blue tie. His sandy hair and mustache were immaculate, as always. He stood at his usual first-class and preferred passengers post. A slow Tuesday morning at summer’s end. There were flights to Philly, New York, and Pittsburgh; a 19-passenger commuter prop was leaving at 6 a.m. for Boston. It was 5:40, and all the Boston passengers seemed to be on their way upstairs. He told the ticket agent alongside him that he was going to take a smoke break, but then he saw two men walking toward his counter.

That’s what his visitor will talk to him about. The same as CNN, Good Morning America, a National Geographic documentary crew, and Oprah. They all came calling after his name appeared in declassified documents following the release of The 9/11 Commission Report. He talked to everyone, and then he just had to stop. “I thought I could put it behind me,” he says. “I thought I could just grab it and confront it. I figured, the more I confront it, I won’t let it bother me.” He pauses. “I was wrong. There’s never a day without thinking about that day. It’s just there. It’s in your blood, your system. Your feelings. It’s like the sky — always there. It’s like you know your name. How do you try and not know your name?”

In the early afternoon, Mike Tuohey sits with his visitor in his sun-soaked kitchen. “I motioned them over,” he says. “These guys showed up 20 minutes prior. Back then, I didn’t think anything of it. Back then, it was all set up for convenience of passengers.” They checked two bags, carrying two more.

He punched their names into the computer: Mohamed Atta. Abdul Aziz al Omari. One-way first-class tickets to Boston, $2,400 apiece, connecting to American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles. “I don’t usually see that,” Tuohey says. “It’s impressive when you’re seeing someone paying $2,400 for a first-class ticket.

“I never liked the system where you give a boarding pass to a follow-up flight. I worked for US Airways, not American. So I just gave them a boarding pass from here to Boston.”

“They told me one-step check-in,” Atta insisted. “They told me one-step check-in.”

“Everyone knows the pictures of the guy now,” Tuohey continues. “That cold, hard picture. Well that is a warm and cuddly look compared to what I saw. My stomach literally turned over when Atta looked at me. I thought, ‘Why is this man so angry?’ He was looking at me sideways, and all this anger and contempt came through. I thought, ‘If this guy doesn’t look like an Arab terrorist, nobody does.’ I’ve checked in hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, and he’s the only one who made me have that reaction. I remember telling myself, ‘Stop being a jerk. These are Arab businessmen.’ Those were the exact words that went through my head.”

Tuohey stands up and presses his face right beside his visitor’s. “We locked eyes,” he says. “We were this close. And I said, ‘Mr. Atta, if you don’t go now, you will miss your plane.'”

Atta and Omari made their connection in Boston, and at 8:46 a.m., Atta, a trained pilot, steered American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, beginning a day like no other in American history. Investigators later concluded that Atta, the acknowledged leader of the September 11 terrorist attacks, flew from Maine because he did not want the 10 hijackers who would leave from Boston arriving at the airport together (United Flight 175, which struck the South Tower, departed from Logan shortly after).

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Mel Allen


Mel Allen


Mel is the fifth editor of Yankee Magazine since its beginning in 1935. His career at Yankee spans more than three decades, during which he has edited and written for every section of the magazine, including home, food, and travel. In his pursuit of stories, he has raced a sled dog team, crawled into the dens of black bears, fished with the legendary Ted Williams, picked potatoes in Aroostook County, and stood beneath a battleship before it was launched. Mel teaches magazine writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is author of A Coach’s Letter to His Son. His column, “Here in New England,” is a 2012 National City and Regional Magazine Awards Finalist for the category Column.

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4 Responses to 9/11 Started Here | Yankee Classic

  1. Brenda Finn Bowers September 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    Anyone, ANYONE who would suggest that Mr. Tuohey is at fault should be ashamed of themselves. This was going to happen no matter who was at that counter. Mr. Tuohey is simply one more victim of the events of that day. God Bless you Mr. Tuohey.

  2. Kelly Stocking September 11, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    Bless his heart. He is not at fault. He did his job. Period. There was absolutely no way for him (or anyone else) to know what was coming that fateful day. He is no more at fault than any other American who did their job that day. One day, Mr. Tuohey, you’ll have to find forgiveness and let go of the anger and pain. You’re not at fault.

  3. Cris Y~D November 13, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    Reading this story as news breaks from Paris regarding terrorist attacks in Paris France. The insight of Mr.Tuohey as he recalls signs he missed because his level of security should be a wake up call for security trainers. We are so worried about hurting feelings that we seem to be tied up -leaving innocent people at the mercy of the evil these terrorists use against us
    There must be a way to bring these terrorists to their knees. They are immature narcissistic bullies. “Hit me I hit you” seems to be their M.O. like children on the playground.
    We need to become more aggressive in bringing this to an end. God will prevail… But only if we take the helm. How did we -as a Nation – end wars before. How did we stop the madness? Not sitting in a room far removed from the reality of the chaos. Japan used kamikaze pilots. How was that different from suicide bombers?

  4. Jim Romig November 25, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    These creatures of evil used all their hate to fool us all that day.
    Not one of our safeguards anywhere set off any red flags. We were
    A trusting nation and probably could never imagine,at that time,
    Just how horrible their plans were for that day. For one man to
    Carry this awful guilt for not foreseeing that evil in advance is more than
    Any human should have to carry. Mr. Tuohey, we were all duped that day…by the devil himself.

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