9/11 Started Here | Yankee Classic
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.”
The FBI talked with Tuohey long into the evening on September 11. He asked them to keep his name out of the newspapers. A few days later, they came to his house with photos of all 19 hijackers. They asked him if he could point to the two he checked in. “It took me 30 seconds,” he says, “to find Atta.”
In the days following the attack, Tuohey went back to his ticket counter, carried on. He cried in the days after September 11, but so did everyone, and he convinced himself he was OK. Then, in the summer of 2004, The 9/11 Commission Report went public.
“I just started crying,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Get over it. Get over it.'” He’d be at the mailbox and he’d see Mohamed Atta driving a car. He’d be at The Maine Mall and Atta would be strolling 100 feet ahead. “My heart would pound. My stomach felt like ice,” Tuohey says. “I ran after him…. I knew it wasn’t him, but at that moment it was. I know it sounds bizarre, so I don’t talk about it. I would say to myself, ‘Look, he’s dead.’ But it still scares you. It really hit me when I tried to find an excuse not to go to my mother’s funeral. Just because of the fact that entered my mind — that’s not me. I’d grown afraid to go out. I was afraid to see Atta.”
It’s another morning. The sea breeze ripples the American flag that flies from Mike Tuohey’s front porch. He’s trying to find answers through counseling. He says when you grow up where he did, you don’t talk about problems with strangers; but he thinks — he hopes — he’ll find his way out of this strange world he now finds himself in.
His truck bed is piled high with mulch. He says his wife has only five years more of work and then she will retire. He knows what they’ll do. There is an island chain he knows about, far out in the Indian Ocean. “People who’ve been there tell me the water is so clear, you can look down and see 250 feet,” he says. “That’s where we’ll go.” For now, he will do this: He will watch for birds, he will smell summer wash over the marsh, he will go to a lake deep in northern Maine where he will camp and fish for bass. He will cry, and he says he is crying, too, for the safety that was snatched from everyone that day. And he will dig in the soil and push in seeds of lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and peppers, then wait for them to come to life.