9/11 Started Here | Yankee Classic
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
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After 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).
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