SCARBOROUGH – Mike Tuohey is enjoying retirement, spending much of his time working in his well-manicured gardens and planning warm-weather get-togethers with buddies he has known since grade school.
But he’s still wary of watching the news.
The 65-year-old former US Airways employee says, even 10 years later, watching footage of the Sept. 11 attacks on television makes him sob.
Tuohey was the Portland International Jetport ticket agent who handed hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari boarding passes for their flight to Boston. He was still at work when word came that a commercial plane had struck a building in New York City.
“And of course,” he said, “all the horror just flowed from there.”
The emotional impact of the attacks hit Tuohey two days later. And it hit hard.
“I turn the TV on, I’m drinking coffee, and I just saw what I saw and I started sobbing uncontrollably. I just could not stop. I mean deep heaves and tears. I was just overwhelmed with pain.”
His wife, a flight attendant, was stuck out of state, so Tuohey phoned his 90-year-old mother in Boston, who, along with Tuohey’s youngest brother, immediately drove to his home in Scarborough.
“She did what mothers do. She hugged me, she kissed me. She said, ‘Everything’s all right. It’s not your fault.’… And I mean that just let out a whole well of emotion.”
A week later, Tuohey returned to the US Airways ticket counter. “Everything seemed routine. Of course, as routine as can be, except now the whole world is in an uproar.”
For three years following the attacks, Tuohey continued working. “I enjoyed doing it. I’d been doing it a lot of years, and I think I was pretty good at it.”
Tuohey retired in early 2004, sooner that he would have liked, but a changing industry hastened the decision.
It wasn’t long after that Tuohey began seeing people who weren’t there — “hallucinations,” he called them. Specifically, he saw the hijackers. “I saw Mohamed Atta at the Maine Mall, I thought. I mean, it looked like him. But yet when I went up there and looked around the corner, there was nobody there,” he said.
He saw Atta again, staring out from the window of a passing car as Tuohey checked the mail.
Tuohey also started having trouble leaving the house. He made up excuses — something needed to be watered, something needed to be put away — to keep himself close to home. He started avoiding family functions. He withdrew. On the occasions he did leave, he made sure to take the quickest route so he would not be away longer than necessary. And when he returned, he’d sit in an idling car in the driveway, his mind a blank.
He said he was also looking over his shoulder constantly. “I started becoming hypersensitive, hyperaware,” he said. “I was just losing myself.”
Tuohey sought help from a local mental health professional, who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Drugs would help, Tuohey was told. But he refused.
“I said, ‘I want to be Mike, not Prozac Mike.'”
Tuohey eventually found a therapist whose alternative methods didn’t include drugs. And finally, he started to feel like himself again.
He still occasionally has panic attacks. Sometimes he finds himself making excuses not to leave the house and thinks, “Am I falling back into that?”
But he has old friends to go see and a retirement to enjoy. And right now, he said, “everything seems alright.”
Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at: