Originally published Friday, October 5, 2001
The FBI released a detailed chronology Thursday showing that two of the suspected hijackers in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center spent their final hours in Greater Portland stopping at ATMs and visiting a pizza restaurant and Wal-Mart.
The agency also appealed to the public for information that might complete the accounting.
The bureau’s public release of information suggests that Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari may have done more than simply arrive in Portland the night before and prepare to board the infamous flight. But police and other experts on criminal investigation say it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions.
Atta has been portrayed by federal investigators as the choreographer of the attacks. He and Alomari flew out of the Portland International Jetport the morning of the hijackings.
They flew to Boston, where they met with three other suspected terrorists and boarded American Airlines Flight 11, headed for Los Angeles, just before 7:45 a.m. The FBI puts Atta at the controls of the plane when it hit the 110-story north tower of the trade center at 8:45 a.m.
Twenty minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, also out of Boston, crashed into the south tower. Soon, two other hijacked planes slammed into the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
Hundreds of tips were called in to the FBI, state and local police and other agencies in the days following the attacks, and investigators are continuing to look for evidence in the Portland area.
As recently as Saturday, an FBI agent visited the International House of Pancakes on Maine Mall Road in South Portland, next to Pizza Hut, to show servers and cleanup workers about 20 photographs of men. Some of the men were bearded, or were dressed in traditional Middle Eastern attire and appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, said manager Dee Lamontagne.
The agent did not give a reason for his visit and stayed for about half an hour, “until everyone had a chance to look at the pictures, ” Lamontagne said. “He really didn’t comment much.”
Employees did not recognize any of the men, she said.
The FBI’s time line accounts for much of the 12-hour period between the suspects’ check-in at the Comfort Inn in South Portland at 5:43 p.m. Monday and their 6 a.m. departure Tuesday on a US Airways flight to Boston.
After checking in at the motel, Atta and Alomari were seen several times between 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Between 8 and 9 p.m., they were seen at Pizza Hut; at 8:31 p.m., they were videotaped by a KeyBank automatic teller machine, and videotaped again at 8:41 p.m. at a Fast Green ATM next to Pizzeria Uno.
At 9:15 p.m., the two stopped at Jetport Gas on Western Avenue, where they asked for directions, and at 9:22 p.m., Atta was caught on videotape in the Wal-Mart in Scarborough. The FBI reports he spent about 20 minutes there.
On Tuesday morning, the two men checked out at 5:33 a.m.; their rental car was recorded entering the airport parking lot at 5:40. The two checked in at the counter at 5:43; passed through security, as shown on videotape, at 5:45; and boarded their flight, which took off at 6 a.m.
Charles Prouty, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, appeared Thursday at a briefing in Portland to release a videotaped presentation of the chronology. The tape featured Prouty making an appeal for tips, as well as copies of the images taken from the security cameras at Wal-Mart, the gas station and the ATMs.
Prouty refused to elaborate on the chronology, saying only that the bureau needs help “determining what they did while they were in Maine.” He urged residents to call the FBI with any tips and said he hoped the videotaped images would “jog the memory” of anyone who might have seen the men Sept. 10 or 11.
Lee Colwell, former associate director of the FBI and a professor of criminal justice in the University of Arkansas System, says it would be a mistake to read into the FBI’s public briefing any suggestion that the agency suspects more Portland connections. But it would also be impossible to rule it out, he said.
“Obviously there was a great deal of activity, ” he said. “They just didn’t come into town and sit in the motel.
“They (the FBI) have a time line with some voids, ” Colwell added. “It would be important for them to identify what (Atta and Alomari) were doing during those void periods. It may be that they were in touch with someone during those times who could provide information.”
Would the FBI really go to these lengths if it didn’t suspect more activity? “I don’t think they would leave anything to chance, ” Colwell said. “It’s just an extraordinary effort to make sure that they’ve got everything.”
Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood concurred. “There’s a question nobody can answer: Why did the individual who was the mastermind of the most violent act in American history fly out of a little rural airport in . . . Maine?” he said.
Atta, 33, the reputed orchestrator of the attacks, was among the most worldly and oldest of the suspected hijackers, investigators say. The son of an Egyptian lawyer, he traveled extensively, visiting countries like Syria that have terrorist cells. He went to Hamburg, Germany, to study urban planning and took flight lessons in Venice, Fla.
He was a master of altered identity with a penchant for aliases. He changed his appearance when he moved to Florida this year for schooling, shaving his beard and opting for Western attire over the tunic he wore in Germany.
Hundreds of reported sightings of Atta in Greater Portland have been passed on to investigators. Chitwood said he is unaware of any evidence that Portland has any connection with any terrorist organization.
None of the tips Chitwood’s department has checked out can be supported by any evidence such as videotapes or credit-card receipts, except the events laid out Thursday by the FBI, he said.
Chitwood said that does not mean the tips are invalid, just that they cannot be verified.
Lt. Mark Clark of the South Portland Police Department, which has been working with the FBI to follow up leads, said he doesn’t know whether the FBI is pursuing a particular theory about the suspected hijackers.
“They’re just trying to make sure there aren’t any leads out there that have been overlooked, ” Clark said. “You have to look at all the possibilities. You can’t rule anything out.”
The broad search for evidence has led investigators to dozens of businesses, two Portland mosques and numerous restaurants and hotels in the area.
At the Embassy Suites hotel near the jetport, FBI agents have asked staff to scan guest lists “in the date range preceding (Sept. 11), ” said general manager Stuart Barwise.
Immediately after the attacks, agents asked for searches using only the names of Atta and Alomari. As the week progressed, agents provided more names for Barwise and asked for searches to incorporate more dates. After one visit by agents and six phone calls over two weeks, the FBI lost interest, Barwise said.
“As it turned out, we didn’t have any information that matched or was interesting to them, ” he said.
The FBI also sought information from the Hilton Garden Inn “for a series of of dates leading up to the incident, ” said general manager Gerard Kilajian. He has not heard from the FBI for about two weeks.
The FBI called Pizzeria Uno in South Portland as recently as Wednesday, asking a series of questions about the ATM in the restaurant parking lot.
“They wanted to know the address here, if the ATM was right outside, if it was a drive-through or if you had to walk to it, ” said waiter Chris Wright, who passed the call on to his manager.
An FBI agent had visited the restaurant several days after the attacks, with a sheet of “15 or so” photographs of men who appeared to be Middle Eastern, said waitress Pam Cullinan. Wait staff did not recognize any of the men, she said.
Thursday afternoon, Portland police interviewed two employees at the Portland Public Library who are sure they saw Atta on several occasions. Spruce Whited, head of security at the library, said he first saw a man he is convinced was Atta in April 2000. He said the man came to the library several times, using the computers. “I only recognized him because he’d been here a few times, ” he said.
Kathy Barry, a reference librarian, also reported seeing Atta, whose photograph has been distributed widely through the media since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Atta’s use of the library, if true, would fit into a national picture of suspects using computers in public libraries and elsewhere to communicate.
During the past three weeks, federal officials have visited libraries from Florida to Virginia, culling log-in sheets and seizing computer equipment where suspected hijackers and associates may have logged time.
Whited said no investigators have asked to look at the library’s computers.
Whited said he saved videotapes from the library’s surveillance camera, but that the tape is recorded over every six weeks, so it is unlikely to show Atta unless he came in unnoticed by Whited or Barry during the six weeks before Sept. 11.
He said the FBI had not interviewed him.
There were other reported sightings, too, including a worker at Micucci’s Grocery on India Street who is convinced he saw Atta in late August; former state Rep. Herb Adams, who believes he saw Atta at the Big Apple convenience store on Park Street this summer; and an employee at the Convention and Visitors Bureau on Commercial Street, who reported seeing two men she believed to be Atta and Alomari.
The FBI also interviewed workers at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant in Portland just days after the attacks.
So far, police have been unable to confirm any of these tips.
Staff Writer David Connerty-Marin can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:
Staff Writer Josie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: