A former American Airlines ticket agent who checked-in two hijackers involved in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 has lived with that decision for two decades, riddling him with guilt for allowing them on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
Vaughn Allex was working at Dulles International Airport in Virginia when two men – Salem and Nawaf Al-Hazmi – ran into the terminal and appeared lost when they approached his counter, he said in an interview with ABC News. The pair had purchased first-class tickets and were running late to board flight 77, which was later deliberately crashed into the Pentagon, killing 125 inside and all 64 passengers and crew – including the five hijackers – on board the airliner.
"I blame myself, I thought, you know, if I had done something different, if I'd not let them on, if I just said to the agents, these two guys are late, let them get the next flight. We have one at noon. It's no big deal," Allex told the news outlet during an interview at the airport.
After asking if they packed their own luggage, Allex booked them on the flight and flagged them for additional security after failed to answer basic check-in questions.
"The check-in was odd. The two that I checked in, two brothers, one was kind of gruff and the other one was standing a couple of paces behind him. And this sounds odd, but this is what caught my attention. He was almost dancing, he was moving from foot to foot and grinning and looking around, and my thought was, here's somebody that's never been on an airplane and boy is this guy excited," Allex said.
"And I kind of watched him for a couple of minutes as we went through the whole check. And he was totally unresponsive as far as whatever we asked him to read, to look verbally. He just smiled and danced and was oblivious to what was going on," he added. "That's the image I have, is the two of them standing there and the one just dancing, it was the oddest thing."
It wasn't until the next day that Allex, who retired from American Airlines in 2008 and now works for the Transportation Security Administration, realized those two passengers were two of the hijackers.
A lawyer for the airline summoned him to an office where two FBI agents handed him a passenger manifest for flight 77.
"I started to run my hand down the list and I saw the names of the two people I checked in, and in that moment and that instant, that's when I looked at him and I said, 'I did it, didn't I?' And they said, 'what did you do?' And I go, 'these were the two that I put in,'" Allex said. "I think they, they knew exactly who they were looking for, but they wanted me to come to that conclusion."
"And once we did, the interview strictly focused on these two individuals," he continued. "And the rest is history, that the whole transaction came back, I didn't know all of September 11th until that moment on September 12th -- I did not realize that I had checked-in two of the hijackers."
Furthering his guilt was the fact that Allex had advised his co-worker to take flight 77 for a trip to Las Vegas. She was considering flying to Chicago and connecting to Las Vegas.
"I said, first of all, it's a better flight. It's a transcontinental flight. You get a meal and a movie and it's relaxing." he recalled. "She said that sounded good, but that she'd never written a ticket that way and we were just transitioning to electronic tickets. Could I help her? So I wrote her ticket from Dulles to Los Angeles with a connecting flight back to Las Vegas. And then the following day, I saw that she had gotten on the flight on the ticket I'd written."
He started to feel better about his role in the deadly flight after purchasing the 9/11 Commission report that detailed missteps by government agencies that failed to uncover the al Qaeda plot.
"The turning point for me, I had been interviewed by the 9/11 Commission. And it wasn't until the 9/11 Commission report came out and I bought the book and here is this book with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages, and I'm on page three. I have a little paragraph and a footnote, footnote number 12."
"That's when it started to get better. That's when I went -- oh my gosh," he added. "There were so many other people involved, there were so many innocent people that just touched on this. And I had just such a small, tiny five-minute part of it. But before that, it was -- it was terrible."