Airline Ticket Agent Recalls Atta on 9/11

Monday , March 07, 2005




A former U.S. Airways ticket agent who issued boarding passes to the terrorists who later hijacked a plane out of Boston on Sept. 11, 2001, says he felt guilty afterward.

Michael Tuohey, of Scarborough, said he was suspicious of Mohamed Atta (search) and Abdulaziz Alomari (search) when they rushed to make their flight out of Portland International Jetport early that morning.

Atta's demeanor, his angry-looking eyes and the pair's first-class, one-way tickets to Los Angeles made Tuohey think twice.

"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," Tuohey told the Maine Sunday Telegram. "You've checked in hundreds of Arabs and Hindus and Sikhs, and you've never done that. I felt kind of embarrassed."

A few hours later, Tuohey was blaming himself as he watched news reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

After leaving Portland on a 6 a.m. flight, Atta and Alomari landed in Boston, where they joined three other hijackers on American Airlines Flight 11 (search), which they crashed into one of the twin towers. Five other hijackers left Boston around the same time and crashed United Airlines Flight 175 (search) into the other tower.

Tuohey, 58, said he felt at least partly responsible in the days following the attacks.

"In your mind you're saying, 'Why didn't you react? Why didn't you do something?"' said Tuohey, who retired last year. "You just have that tortuous thing pulling your mind apart."

Law enforcement officials believe Atta, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, started his day in Portland — about 100 miles from Boston — to avoid having all the hijackers arrive at once at Logan International Airport (search).

But his decision meant he had to go through security screening twice — in Portland and Boston. Newly declassified documents indicate that Atta thought once he was cleared through Portland, he would not have to be screened again in Boston.

After arriving at 5:40 a.m., 20 minutes before his flight, Atta became angry when he was told he could not avoid checking in again in Boston, Tuohey said.

"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.

"It just sent chills through you. You see his picture in the paper (now)," Tuohey said. "You see more life in that picture than there is in flesh and blood."

After the attacks, Tuohey had a gut feeling the two men were involved. After going home, he was called back to the airport to talk to an FBI agent and picked Atta and Alomari out on a security video without any doubt.

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."