YANKEE CLASSIC: 9/11 Started Here
“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).
In his kitchen, Tuohey pauses. Inhales, exhales smoke. His eyes well with tears, and for the next minute he cannot speak. He gathers himself. “Why didn’t I recognize the devil? I did recognize him. But I didn’t stop him.
“This is the most painful thing. I’ve always trusted my instincts. Always. But you have to know what it was like then. If you respond and are wrong, you get screwed.” He lays out a different scenario for his visitor. A what-if. This time he trusts his gut. He calls security. The men miss their flight. “Suppose they had been just businessmen. They don’t get to L.A. Maybe lose out on a multimillion-dollar business deal. They sue our airline for millions. We also get fined $1.5 million for racial profiling. I’d have put the whole company in jeopardy.”
Everyone has told Tuohey he was not to blame. But still. He had lived by his wits all his life, had made his way being street-smart. “My whole being told me something was wrong, and I could not do anything about it.” He knows the fate of others whose lives brushed so briefly against Atta’s. The manager of the hotel in South Portland where the two men stayed on September 10 — her life unraveled. She lost her job, and told a reporter she knew she’d never be the same. Oprah Winfrey, with Tuohey as her studio guest, told 20 million viewers that a woman who’d worked at American Airlines in Boston had later killed herself. Earlier, Oprah’s producer had told Tuohey she had a message from the woman’s husband: “It’s not your fault.”
“When she said that,” Tuohey says, “it felt like a stone was lifted from my heart.”
Some days, anger kicks in. Anger he knows he’s shoved inside, only to have it dig at him until, without warning, he starts sobbing so deeply he cannot breathe. At those times, he calls the friends he grew up with and they say, “What’s wrong with you? What the f— is wrong? It’s not your fault!”
He talks now about the anger. About all he learned in the years after. About a briefing to the president on August 6, 2001. “It was all there,” Tuohey says. “Osama bin Laden. Hijackings. Buildings in New York City. These weren’t dots they had to connect. These were potholes. If just those words — hijackings, terrorists — had come down to us, we’d have gone to level 3 security. Now here I am. I have two young Arabic men in front of me. One-way tickets, checking in just minutes before departure. At level 3, I would have been required to notify security. Their bags would have been opened. What we saw would have set off suspicions: a pilot’s uniform, a video on flying jets. Airline pilots do not buy $2,400 first-class tickets. Airline pilots are the cheapest people on earth. Right there, we would have known something was wrong. This was preventable.”