First in a series

The passage of time helps, but Michael Tuohey still can’t bear to watch news coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years later.

Tuohey was the ticket agent at the Portland International Jetport who handed two of the terrorists – Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari – their boarding passes for an early morning flight to Boston.

From there, the pair boarded and hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, a nonstop flight to Los Angeles. Thirty-two minutes later, Atta, a trained pilot, would steer the passenger aircraft into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, beginning the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

While it only lasted minutes and happened two decades ago, Tuohey’s encounter with two of the terrorists still deeply affects him.

He turns away from news coverage of the passenger jets slamming into the Twin Towers and can’t watch the black smoke billowing out of the towers. It makes him think of all the people who died, not only those on the planes or buried under the collapsed towers, but also the people who chose to jump from the upper floors rather than be burned alive.

“All this stuff comes flooding back – feeling guilty – even though it’s well behind me and I know it’s not my fault,” Tuohey said. “My wife says I sometimes scream at night.”

Tuohey remembers that morning and being suspicious of Atta, who seemed angry and smirked when asked standard security questions. It was enough for Tuohey to decide in that moment not to follow a relatively new, one-step check-in process, a decision that would force the men to go through security checks again in Boston.

Later that morning, a co-worker told him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“When you hear that, you’re thinking a Piper, an eight-passenger or, heaven forbid, a 16-passenger,” he said. “Your mind doesn’t register a full-sized commercial airliner.”

He flicked on a TV just in time to see the second plane hit. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

His co-worker asked if he had checked in a couple of guys on that flight that morning. At first, Tuohey felt bad, thinking the men were victims in the crash. But then, he recalled an earlier thought that he had silently criticized himself for – that Atta looked like a terrorist.

“They were terrorists,” he said. “Everything just drained out of me. I started shaking. It was awful. It was such an awful, awful feeling to come over you.”

Passenger flights across the continental U.S. were grounded for days as a result of the attacks. His wife, a flight attendant, was stranded in Pittsburgh and couldn’t be with her husband.

Maureen Gallagher said it took her four days to get home to her husband. “That was tough not to be there for him,” she said.

With little to do at work, Tuohey went home and watched news coverage.

“I should not have,” he said. “I’m watching television and it started to become overwhelming.”

He tears up when describing graphic news reports of people jumping to their deaths. “I just lost it,” he said.

He called his mother, who was 90, and explained what happened. She picked up his brother and drove up from Boston to be with him.

“To have her hug me and say, ‘It’s ok. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault …'” he said, leaving the sentence hanging. “A 50-year-old man being consoled by his mom – it works. I miss her terribly.”

Tuohey said he didn’t tell many people at first about his role in 9/11. Others who had encounters with the hijackers who passed through Maine have also been reluctant to speak about it over the years.

That all changed for Tuohey in 2004 when his name appeared once, albeit misspelled, in a note on page 451 of the 9/11 Commission report, launching a series of interviews including CNN, ABC News, Oprah Winfrey and National Geographic. The calls would continue to come on each anniversary of the attacks.

Tuohey hoped telling his story would help him confront and overcome his feelings of guilt, but that wasn’t the case. He said it took him years of counseling to begin to feel normal again.

After the attacks, he would see Atta everywhere, whether it was driving in a car or at a local store. He said he became disassociated with reality. Sometimes, he would spend what he thought was only a couple of minutes standing in the shower, or sitting in his car parked in his driveway, only to find that 20 or 30 minutes had lapsed.

He said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and dissociative orders. It took him about five years and four psychologists before he felt like himself again.

As his guilt faded, he began to question why the U.S. government didn’t do more to stop the attacks. He noted that President George W. Bush was briefed about a possible terror attack on Aug. 6, among other warning signs leading up to the attacks. Had the government simply elevated the terror threat to a Level 3, he would have been required to report Atta’s suspicious behavior to security, he said.

“I got very angry,” he said. “This could have been prevented.”

The guilt, the hallucinations and the reminders still resurface around this time every year. Or when he sees people who bring back the memories, such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

But Tuohey, who put in 38 years with the airline before retiring in 2005, says those are now behind him most of the time.

He likes to travel and he enjoys his own slice of heaven in Scarborough, where his porch, adorned with an American flag, overlooks the marsh. There, he can sit and watch deer meander in the swaying grass and broad-winged herons soar in the distance.

“I’m glad it’s far in the past,” he said.

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