SOUTH PORTLAND — At half past five, a blue 2001 Nissan Altima pulled into the parking lot of the Comfort Inn on Maine Mall Road in South Portland. It was a cloudy afternoon – off the coast a hurricane was working its way farther out to sea – but the forecast for the next morning, September 11, 2001, was for brilliant, clear skies.

Two men were in the car. Mohamed Atta was 37, wiry, 5-foot-7, an Egyptian trained as an engineer and urban planner with a piercing stare. Housemates and coworkers would later describe him as disciplined, stoic, detail-oriented and intensely religious. With him was Abdulaziz al-Omari, a 22-year-old Saudi of similar height and build with an easy smile and a small scar on his cheek. “I am writing this in expectation of the end, which is near, an end that is really a beginning,” al-Omari said in a videotaped statement addressed to the United States and released a year later by Osama bin Laden. “We will get you. We will humiliate you. We will never stop following you.”

Atta entered the lobby and checked them both in, receiving the key for room 233, a second-floor double, at 5:43. The room had two queen beds with gold bedspreads, a floral print above each, sage green carpeting and a window looking out on the equally nondescript landscape of the Maine Mall area.

And so the September 11th attacks began, 20 years ago, on a suburban commercial strip on the fringes of Portland’s airport. On the night of the 10th, terrorists’ movements were largely recorded by machines – security cameras, credit card readers, cellphone towers and bank computers – the people they encountered having not taken much notice of two travelers running banal errands in a neighborhood sandwiched between highway off-ramps. The morning of the 11th was a different story.

The events that shook the world, changed the course of history, and led to the invasions and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq shocked everyone old enough to remember them. But some Mainers also had the chilling experience of realizing they had hours before crossed paths with the lead hijacker as he began his mission. Twenty years on, we still wonder why he and his henchman came to our quiet corner of the world to launch the terror.

***

Atta and al-Omari likely spent the next two hours in their room, leaving briefly to conduct an ATM transaction in the hotel’s lobby. Their luggage included a videocassette for a Boeing 757 flight simulator, pepper spray, Atta’s will (drafted in 1996) and his handwritten instructions to his 18 fellow hijackers, copies of which were later found in a rental car and the wreckage of United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

Twenty years ago, on September 10, terrorists Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari checked into the Comfort Inn, room 233, a hotel on the fringes of Portland’s airport. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone. The time of judgment has arrived…from there you will begin to live the happy life, the infinite paradise,” Atta had written. “Check all of your items – your bag, your clothes, knives, your will, your IDs, your passport, all your papers. Check your safety before you leave. Make sure that nobody is following you.”

Atta and al-Omari may indeed have driven up from Boston that afternoon in an effort to obscure their tracks. They had paper tickets to catch an early morning commuter flight from the Portland jetport to Boston Logan, where eight of their colleagues would be waiting at the gates to board two Boeing 767s, fully laden with the fuel needed to fly across the continent.

By the end of the week, numerous people would come forward claiming to have seen Atta and other hijackers in Portland earlier that summer or in the previous year. The FBI did not find evidence of this. Nor did Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood, whose officers conducted their own investigations. “I wanted to find out if any of these sightings were believable and if there was a terror cell in Portland, as some had claimed,” Chitwood says from his Florida retirement home. “It got very nasty, because I was told I needed to stop investigating and let the FBI handle it. But at the end of the day what we found was exactly what they found: There was no cell or anything else.”

Atta’s instructions to his fellow terrorists were to spend their last night going over every aspect of the plan, reading the Al-Taubah chapter of the Koran, and shaving extra hair from their bodies. If he and al-Omari followed these orders, they also prayed and reminded themselves to stand fast. “God will stand with those who stood fast,” the instructions read.

Just before 8 p.m. the two left the Comfort Inn for two hours of mundane nighttime errands. They drove down Maine Mall Road to the Pizza Hut they may have passed on the way in from the turnpike. (A Carmax dealership stands there today.) On arrival Atta picked up the receiver of the restaurant’s payphone and placed a four-minute call to the Boston hotel room of his close friend and university classmate Marwan al-Shehhi, who like Atta had been trained to fly a 767 into the twin towers. He and al-Omari ordered two pizzas.

A security camera records terrorists Abdulaziz al-Omari, front, and Mohamed Atta as they use a Fast Green ATM in South Portland on the evening before the Sept. 11 attacks. Reuters/FBI

Five minutes later the two entered the booth of the Fast Green ATM in the parking lot of Pizzeria Uno, which they had passed on their way to the Pizza Hut, and withdrew $40. In still photos taken from the security camera footage, al-Omari is alternately grinning and grimacing while apparently talking to Atta, who can be seen behind, looking over the younger man’s right shoulder.

They drove straight back to the Pizza Hut, 500 yards away. Atta placed a second call from the payphone there at 8:50 pm. Al-Omari likely picked up the pizzas, the boxes of which would be found in the garbage taken from their room the next day.

Before eating, however, Atta decided they needed to go to Walmart. They drove the wrong way, winding up at the northeast terminus of Maine Mall Road where it meets Western Avenue. They pulled into Jetport Gas on the corner and went inside to ask directions. In the security camera stills released by the FBI, Atta has a scrap of paper in his hand after interacting with the clerk and shows it to al-Omari before they walk out.

Two of the 9/11 hijackers shopped at this Walmart in Scarborough on September 10, 2001. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It was a straight shot to the Scarborough Walmart, 2 miles down Maine Mall Road. They pulled in six minutes later and left the store 17 minutes after that. According to the official investigative reports, they purchased, for reasons never explained, a 6-volt battery converter. A reporter for the New York Post interviewed unnamed store staff a few weeks later who claimed the two had also purchased a $1.84 box cutter, but the report does not appear to have been corroborated elsewhere.

They presumably returned to the Comfort Inn, where they kept to themselves throughout their brief time there, employees said. Laura R. Wale, who had been the general manager of the hotel since 1995, would help investigators access the facility for clues in the days that followed while fielding a flood of media inquiries in the weeks thereafter. In 2003 she told the Press Herald she received little support from the hotel’s owners, Sunburst Hospitality Corp., suffered a nervous breakdown, checked herself into a psychiatric ward and was fired, allegedly for threatening an employee.

“It’s been the loss of a lifetime,” she said at the time. “My life up until now is over as I know it.” Wale, who had moved back to her native Ohio, died in April 2018.

***

Atta and al-Omari came close to missing their flight the following morning. They checked out at 5:33 –  clerk Gloria Meserve (who died in 2015) told investigators they hadn’t asked for a wake-up call – just 27 minutes before US Airways Flight 5930 was due to depart for Boston. Seven minutes later they parked the Altima on the first floor of the jetport parking garage and made their way across the street to the check-in area.

The other passengers had checked in by then, and Michael Tuohey, the US Airways agent, was headed outside to have a smoke. “I saw these two fellows sticking around, and they looked confused,” recalls Tuohey, now retired and living in Scarborough. “I asked them where they were going, and they said, ‘Boston,’ and I said, “Oh, jeez.’” He gestured them over to the counter and took their tickets: first class to Los Angeles via Logan.

“You seldom saw paper tickets by then, and you seldom saw $2,500 tickets,” he says. He asked them for their identification and asked them the routine security questions of the era: Has anyone asked you to carry anything on board? Have your bags been out of your sight? Atta looked dour and answered all the questions. Al-Omari nodded his responses, making Tuohey wonder whether he understood English. They checked two bags, which, if anyone had hand searched them, would have been found to contain Atta’s will and instructions, the flight simulator tape, a small knife and pepper spray. (The bags wouldn’t make the connection at Logan, and their contents would help investigators more quickly assemble the outlines of the attack.)

The two behaved very differently. “Atta throws his license up on the counter and acts like I’m his worst enemy,” Tuohey says. “Al-Omari held his license up to his face, and he was smiling – to be honest I don’t think that young fellow knew he was going to die that day, like he was along for a hijacking like was always done in the past.”

Mike Tuohey, the ticket agent who checked in Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari, was suspicious of the men who arrived late and had $2,500 paper tickets. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Tuohey was a little suspicious. Because they were checking in late he put a special tag on their bags indicating to baggage handlers not to load them onto the plane until after receiving confirmation the passengers had boarded. And although there was a new system in place allowing him to issue boarding passes for their connecting flight on American Airlines, Tuohey elected not to give those to them. “I had their boarding cards for AA11 there, but I wanted them to have to check in again at Logan,” he says.

“So I told them to go upstairs to Gate 11, and Atta looked me in the eye, and he had this look on his face, and he said, ‘They told me one-step check-in.’ And I tried to be diplomatic, but he had this negativity and darkness,” Tuohey says. “And I thought, ‘Jeez, if this guy doesn’t look like an Arab terrorist, I don’t know who does.’ But then I slapped myself, and I said this is not right. Just because a guy is crabby at 5:30 in the morning. So I said, ‘Listen, Mr. Atta, if you don’t get upstairs very quickly you are going to miss the flight altogether.’”

There were a half-dozen flights departing between 6 and 8 a.m. Had the terrorists flown the week before, they never would have made it through security in time. But Labor Day had come and gone, and the airport was quieter that morning than it had been for months. “In summer every airline and every flight is full – and Delta alone had two 757s parked here overnight in those days – so there were hundreds and hundreds of passengers to process through that one narrow security checkpoint at one time,” Tuohey adds. “But instead the line was completely clear.”

***

Portland International Jetport. Two of the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks departed from the airport early on September 11, 2001. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

US Airways 5930 was a tiny commuter flight operated with a Beechcraft 1900, a twin-engine propeller plane seating just 19 passengers. This morning there were only eight.

Vince Meisner had arrived early, leaving his house in Albany Township at 2:30 in the morning to be sure to get there an hour and a half in advance. A product engineer for Honeywell, he was en route to a three-day company meeting in Cupertino, California. He’d originally been scheduled to fly American Airlines Flight 11 and switch planes in Los Angeles, but the week before, his travel agent had found an open seat on a direct flight from Boston to San Jose. “I would have been toast,” Meisner says.

Security was a breeze. “I always carry my Swiss Army knife with me, so I just took it off my belt and put it in the carry-on luggage, and it went right through,” he says, recalling the events from his workshop. “They didn’t care back then.” He exited security, turned right and walked to the Gate 11, the very last in the concourse, to wait for his flight.

Brian Guerrette and Roger Quiron, Maine state government information technology managers, were on their way to a technology conference in Los Angeles and had carpooled down from the Oakland area, arriving at 5. They’d also had a late change to their itinerary, flying Delta direct from Boston. “We could easily have been on a different Boston to L.A. flight if it had been cheaper,” Guerrette says. “We were the only Boston to L.A. flight that landed safely that day.”

They also passed through security in minutes, walked to the gate and sat down to people-watch. A few minutes before boarding, Guerrette saw Atta and al-Omari approach an attendant at another gate who pointed them to Gate 11. After confirming they were in the right place the two sat down and engaged in conversation with each other. “They seemed a bit joined at the hip,” Guerrette recalls.

Meisner boarded early and sat in one of the middle seats. He watched as al-Omari climbed the stairs and bent over to enter the door of the tiny plane. “He looked scared,” he recalls. “I thought maybe he had never flown before.”

Vincent Meisner, in his workshop in Albany Township, recalls bumping lead hijacker Mohamed Atta with his bag while boarding a tiny commuter flight from Portland to Boston the morning of 9/11. Colin Woodard/Staff Writer

The space between the seats was narrow, and Meisner accidentally bumped Atta with his carry-on bag and apologized. “He didn’t say a word, and I thought to myself, ‘That poor sucker needs some more coffee or something.’”

Co-pilot Kenneth Anderson, who also served as flight attendant, closed the door at 6 a.m. The engines loudly came to life. The chocks were pulled from the wheels, and 10 minutes later US Airways 5930 was airborne.

The Beechcraft pulled up to Logan’s Terminal B at 6:45 a.m. Guerrette, Quiron and Meisner departed without looking back, hurrying to make their flights. Anderson later told investigators the terrorists were the last to leave and didn’t appear nervous or upset.  “Anderson…believes that they smiled at him as they walked to the gate,” the agent who interviewed him wrote.

***

The terrorists proceeded up the jetway stairs, through the US Airways side of the terminal, across a street and parking lot, and into the American side, where they again passed through security. When AA11 left the runway at 7:59, Atta and al-Omari were seated next to each other in first class, row 8. Among the 90 other people on the aircraft were retirees Robert and Jackie Norton of Lubec, Maine, bound to their son’s wedding in Santa Barbara.

Mohamed Atta, right, and Abdulaziz al-Omari pass through security at the Portland jetport ahead of a commuter flight to Boston on Sept. 11.

Atta was at the controls when the 767 collided with the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., killing everyone aboard. Among those killed in the tower was 33-year-old bond trader Stephen Ward of Gorham, who worked on the 100th floor, just above the impact zone.

Al-Shehhi flew United Flight 175 — another Los Angeles-bound 767 — into the South Tower at 9:03. Among the 60 non-terrorists who died on the plane was Portland attorney James Roux, 42, a Bowdoin graduate whose law firm had offices in Maine and Kathmandu, Nepal.

A fifth Mainer, Navy Cmdr. Robert Allan Schlegel, 38, of Gray, was killed when American Flight 77 struck the section of the Pentagon where he worked. The official death toll from the attacks that day was 2,996, including the 19 hijackers.

Unbeknownst to Guerrette and Quiron, air traffic controllers and the U.S. military feared their 767 – Delta Flight 1989 – had also been hijacked. It had the same profile as the two Boston-to-L.A. planes that had just struck the twin towers, and it was flying close enough to AA77 that a message sent from that hijacked aircraft – “We have a bomb onboard” – was mistakenly ascribed to the Delta plane. Military jets scrambled to intercept the 767 over Ohio.

At 9:42 the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all aircraft in U.S. airspace to land, but Delta 1989 had actually received a landing order minutes before. Guerrette recalls the aircraft reversing direction and the pilot informing them that they were being diverted to Cleveland “because a small rental plane had struck the World Trade Center.” The plane touched down at 9:47.

Guerrette says they were kept aboard at the end of the tarmac for a couple of hours. He had left his cellphone with his wife, but fellow passengers began making calls and learning what had happened in New York and Washington. He borrowed a phone to let his family know he was OK, but by then the circuits were overwhelmed. “The part I think about most is my wife and kids and all that time not knowing if I was safe,” he recalls.

FBI and ATF agents surrounded the plane, and all the luggage was taken out and inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs. Passengers were taken to an abandoned building and questioned by the FBI. Guerrette and Quiron didn’t get to a hotel until 5 p.m. It wasn’t until they were watching television coverage that they realized the plot had been led by one of the two men they’d seen at Gate 11 that morning. They called the FBI, which sent seven agents to the hotel to interview them again.

Meisner’s plane was diverted to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where he deplaned normally and rushed to the scrum to get a rental car. Hours later he was on the road, starting what would be a two-and-a-half-day trek back to Maine.

“Everyone I saw on that drive was pretty scared,” he recalls. Televisions were on in lobbies, restaurants and bars. “People were talking about it, and it was just an uneasy feeling,” he says. “America has been so lucky, never having been invaded, and it all seemed so safe and secure. But it isn’t secure anymore.”

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