SCARBOROUGH – A brush with history can happen to anyone, at any time. For Michael Tuohey, 64, of Scarborough, that moment came on Sept. 11, 2001, when, as a customer service agent for U.S. Airways at the Portland International Jetport, he checked in Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, two of the 19 terrorists who went on later that morning to hijack four commercial jetliners, flying two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, one into the Pentagon, near Washington, D.C., and a fourth into a Pennsylvania field.
Atta, the reported ringleader of the operation, transferred to American Airlines Flight 11 at Boston’s Logan International Airport and was aboard the first flight to strike its target, the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
On Monday, Tuohey spoke with The Current about his experience, Atta’s seething anger, and what happened in Portland in the moments of the attack.
Q: What was your position on 9/11?
A: I was a customer service agent. You do different things on different days, but that particular day I happened to be working at the ticket counter, processing passengers as they came in the door – check their bags, check their IDs, ask them the security questions, things like that.
Q: How long had you been working that job?
A: I came up to Portland in 1986, but I’d been working for U.S. Airways since 1967. I worked in Boston for 19 years, before coming up here. I finally got done in 2004, after 37 years. I didn’t want to get done, either. Due to the financial status of the airline industry, U.S. Airways changed the status of Portland from a mainline station to a commuter station. For me to maintain my status as a mainline employee, I would have had to transfer to New York or Philadelphia and take a pay cut. That was not appealing by any stretch of the imagination. So, I decided to retire.
Q: Do you think your job loss was a direct result of 9/11?
A: Oh, God, yeah. For the life of me, I don’t know why a single news organization has never picked that up – the devastation to the airline industry caused as a result of 9/11.
Everybody’s covered the death and the havoc and the horror of it all, but for hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people, maybe a million or more, who either worked for the airlines, or in any of the ancillary businesses that served the airlines – like the meal services, the fuelers, the mechanical people, the car rentals, the hotels – there was an amazing ripple effect because people stopped flying. A lot of those jobs never came back, in part because of the security that came about, which makes it so much more expensive to service the industry these days, and to maintain those jobs.
Q: Do you think we’ve gone overboard with airline security in the post-9/11 world?
A: I’ll never say they’ve gone overboard with security. I hate it when I hear people whining about people who are there to protect their lives. I mean, c’mon, get over yourself. They’re not there to give you a cheap grope. And people say, “Now they’re shaking down my 80-year-old grandmother, does she look like a terrorist?” and I say, “You tell me what a terrorist looks like.” They’re strapping bombs to 18-year-old girls and sending them out into the marketplace. It could be anybody.
Q: Going back to that day, on the subject of “What does a terrorist look like?” – did you get any danger signals from Atta and Alomari?
A: I got an uneasy feeling. My stomach gave a little “Ugh,” but it wasn’t anything actionable.
Q: What made you uneasy?
A: Well, this guy, Atta, just had the look of a cold, dead person. He had the deadest eyes. At the time I just thought, here’s a guy in a bad mood, because it’s 5:30 in the morning and he’s running late for his flight and, unlike me, he’s not being paid to be pleasant.
Q: Was there anything unusual about their appearance or demeanor?
A: Well, they had these $2,400, first-class tickets to L.A. That was highly unusual. You’re used to seeing $300-$400 tickets that don’t even really cover the cost of transporting people. At the time I just thought it was a good thing to see, because it meant at least somebody was paying money for a ticket.
Q: So, that didn’t raise any concern?
A: No, I was on my way to a smoke break when I saw them standing there looking confused, so I waved them over and just tried to hurry up with the transaction so I could get to my smoke. I scanned the ticket quickly – this took about three seconds, so I didn’t linger over the price very long – and began to process them.
They came up in the system as a “positive bag match,” because they came in real close to flight time. That just meant that the bags could not go on board until they were physically on the plane. At the time the big concern was that somebody would give you a bag and just walk away. The thinking back then was that somebody was not going to blow themselves up.
Q: What happened next?
A: Well, after I tagged their bags I went through the security questions. The younger guy shook his head no to everything, just like he was supposed to, although, today, I don’t know if he really understood anything I said. But, he gave the correct response. Meanwhile, Atta was just smirking – I mean, he had this thing where he’d look at you out of the corner of his eye, just smirking. When he gave me his ID, I looked at it a moment and thought to myself, “Man, if this doesn’t look like an Arab terrorist, nobody does?”
Q: You actually thought that?
A: Oh, yes. That was my exact thought. I mean, you’ve seen his picture. This man was death warmed over. But I quickly corrected myself. I thought, “Hey, that’s not nice. You shouldn’t be stereotyping people.” Again, I mostly just thought he was just an Arab business guy who got up on the wrong side of the bed and was in a bad mood.
Q: So, there was no reason to challenge him at all, then?
A: No, but I did make it a bit harder on him. There was a policy the airlines had recently instituted that allowed passengers to check in once at the beginning of their trip and get all their boarding cards. It didn’t matter if they were transferring airlines, or in what city, as long as every transfer happened within a certain time period, all the boarding cards came out of the system at once.
I never liked that policy. I thought it was bad security because it meant people only had to face airline staff once, no matter where they were going. It may have been convenient for passengers, but I thought it was a hole in security. I mean, how much of a hassle is it to have to show your ID again with another agent [at each transfer], right?
So, I handed them their stuff back and he [Atta] looks it over and noticed I didn’t give him all of his boarding passes. He says, “They told me one-step check in.”
I’m like, geesh, he knows I’m supposed to give him all of his boarding passes. He probably knows I have them. So, I told him, “Mr. Atta, you’re a first-class passenger. I’m sure they’ll be very happy to take care of you at the Admiral’s Club, in Boston.”
He just stared at me and said again, “They told me one-step check-in.” At this point we’re giving each other the hairy eyeball – he knows I’ve got the cards, and I know I’m not giving them to him.
Q: Why did you not want to give him his boarding cards?
A: I didn’t know him. I mean, if he was a frequent traveler. If he was traveling with a family of six, if he was someone I was familiar with. But, I’m like, I don’t know him. Plus, I didn’t like his attitude. He acted like it was demeaning to him to have to deal with me. That was the impression I got. He was just a guy with a bad attitude.
So, I was supposed to give the cards to him, but I just wasn’t comfortable. To me, they were skirting a security point, because, by getting everything from me, they didn’t have to talk to a single airline agent in Boston.
But I didn’t think I was inconveniencing them too much. They were first-class passengers. They could have just gone to the Club, sat down, had a drink, and somebody would have taken care of them.
So, I tried to think on my feet and told him, “Look, Mr. Atta, if you don’t get upstairs to the gate, it’s very likely you’re going to miss you flight altogether.”
Keep in mind, this all happened in a matter of, like, 20 seconds, even with the mutual staring. Finally, he said something in Arabic to the other guy and they walked away.
Then, history takes over from there.
Q: So, he had to go through another security point after leaving you.
A: He had to stop somewhere and get another boarding card to L.A. I think the reason he was so adamant on getting everything from me is that they had rehearsed this. They had rehearsed the whole trip before, I’m sure of it. They knew they could get all of their boarding passes in Portland, which achieved their objective of not all arriving in Boston together.
But, I threw a wrinkle into the plan, and it was like, “Uh-oh, this jerk, this infidel, is not playing like it had always gone before.”
Q: Were you still at work when you found out what they had done?
A: Yeah. It wasn’t a busy day and I had mentioned to some others the incident. I said, “Man, this Arab guy, he wasn’t happy with me. I sure was hoping he wasn’t going to give me a bad time.” And we had a laugh about that, you know?
But then, a couple hours later, there was this girl getting off work from Continental and as she was walking by our counter she said, “Did you hear about the plane crash in New York?” She told us a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, and when I heard that I was thinking maybe a little single-engine, or maybe a helicopter. I don’t think anybody thought on the first reports that it was a commercial airliner.
But, we had a TV in the back and people started to watch. Eventually, someone came out and said it was a commercial airliner and then, shortly after that, someone shouted, “Another one just crashed into the other building.”
My first thought at that was, “terrorists,” and then this girl, Diane, she said, “Tuohey, it was those guys that you checked in this morning. They transferred to American Airlines. It was them, I know it was.”
I was like, “No, those poor guys are dead.” But then it dawned on me – pissed-off Arab guy who looked at me like I was the biggest piece of dung he’d ever seen in his entire life, Holy Jesus, he was a terrorist. But then I was like, how did they do it?
Of course, it was about then that all heck broke loose and they shut down the country.
Q: What was it like in the terminal at that point?
A: Initially, it was ridiculous. There were people screaming at me – “Hey. I got to get my flight!” I tried to tell them, “The air corridors are all shut down.”
“Well, when can you get me out of here,” they’d say. I’m like, “I don’t know. What can I tell you, the president just grounded every place in the United States of America.”
Of course, we began to hear about the other crashes and it was like, “How many of these things are going to happen? Are there some out west, or international flights on their way over?”
Things got backed up a little bit until we convinced people that they might as well go home, that there were no flights coming in, no flights going out, and we had no information about when the skies were going to open again.
It took some doing to get through to some people that we were under attack by a foreign entity.
Q: Was there any sense of danger at the airport?
A: No, not really. We knew we weren’t a target. They wouldn’t have done enough damage crashing into the airport, other than killing everybody on the plane.
Basically, once people cleared out, we were glued to the television. Finally, Diane said to me, we’ve got to call the FBI. By that time, I had already made out copies of all their information, because I knew this was going to be stuff somebody’d want – that they’d paid for their tickets with an American Express card on such-and-such a date, at such-and-such a location – so they could trace it back.
Q: When did you first speak to the FBI?
A: That same day. With everything shut down and more than enough staff, I ended up going home around noon. I was off at 12:30 anyway. I was watching all the stuff on television when the phone rang and I was told, “The FBI’s here. They want to interview you.” So, I went back over to the airport until 8 o’clock that night.
Q: Wow, they debriefed you for that long? What was that like?
A: Oh, it wasn’t too bad. I told them there was a camera right over my head, you can get the whole conversation and get a good look at them. Turns out the camera wasn’t working. So, then, I had to stick around and look at the footage of the camera from where people went through security into the boarding area. It was not a digital system, so that took awhile.
Other than that, it was just a matter of telling them the same story I’ve just told you. Then I went home, slept like a rock, because I’d been up since 3 in the morning. Then I got up the next day and went to work all over again, although, of course, there wasn’t much to do.
Q: Did you testify before the 9/11 Commission?
A: Yeah. I went to a hotel in downtown Portland and was interviewed over the telephone from a couple of hours. I just gave the same story.
Finally, they said, “Mike, is there anything we can do to make security better?” I said, “Yeah, but you’re not going to like my answer.”
Q: Which was?
A: I said, “You’ve got to start profiling people.” I mean, not overtly, not to the point where who are pulling out always just one type of person. But you’ve go to profile, and do what they’ve done in Israel and Europe for years, which is interviews – anyone who doesn’t seem right, you question them pretty intensely.
Q: Do you think what’s happening now with the TSA, what people are objecting to so much, is that being done because of a reluctance to profile people?
A: Oh, God, yes.
Q: Is there anything that could have been done that day to prevent the 9/11 attacks?
A: No, I don’t think anything could have been done that day. What angers me is that, as time goes by, we keep finding out how much the government was aware of, but failed to act on. They should have put us on a heightened level of security. But, of course, that would have slowed things way down.
Q: Could something like 9/11 happen again today?
A: No. Because of the security, but also the attitude of passengers. We are no longer sheep anymore. It used to be that we were like, “Just do what they want. If someone hijacks the plane they are going to set it down somewhere and make a bunch of demands. Eventually, they’ll give up the plane.” It was like, “Just don’t agitate the situation.”
But those days are gone, of people just passively waiting out the situation. People won’t stand for it. They know they might be putting their own lives in danger, but, by doing so, they could be savings so many more lives on the ground.
I don’t think terrorists will ever get access to a cockpit again.