At least 10 people in the Portland area encountered Mohamed Atta and his partner the night before the attacks, but only one is willing to be interviewed.
A producer for the National Geographic Channel is coming to Portland this week hoping to interview people who encountered Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, the al-Qaida terrorists who spent about 12 hours in Portland before joining the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
But there’s one problem with the project: There’s hardly anyone in Portland to interview.
With the exception of one retired ticket agent who lives in Scarborough, nobody else will come forward to talk about any encounters with the terrorists, said Erik Nelson, president of Creative Differences, a Los Angeles production company that is producing the film for National Geographic.
“We have one guy,” he said. “But where is everybody else? It’s like they dropped off the face of the Earth.”
The Portland footage will be part of a two-hour documentary focusing on the 24 hours prior to the moment the first plane crashed into the North Tower at the World Trade Center in New York City. It will air in September.
At least 10 people in the Portland area saw the two terrorists up close between 5:37 p.m. on Sept. 10, when they checked into the Comfort Inn at 90 Maine Mall Road in South Portland, and 6 a.m. on Sept. 11, when they departed Portland on US Airways en route to Boston, Nelson said.
After checking into the hotel, Atta and Alomari were seen or photographed at four businesses in South Portland: Pizza Hut, a KeyBank drive-up ATM machine, an ATM machine at an Uno Pizzeria & Grill, and at the Jetport gas station. The pair also spent nearly 20 minutes shopping at Walmart on Payne Road in Scarborough, according to a chronology pieced together by the FBI.
According to media accounts at the time, employees at Walmart and Pizza Hut were instructed by the FBI not to comment on what the men bought or ordered.
Robert Erickson, who is producing the documentary and will be traveling to Portland on Wednesday, said he had hoped to interview Laura Wale, who in 2001 was the manager of the Comfort Inn. Wale is now living out of state, and declined to talk.
He also wants to interview Lynda Eaton, Wale’s co-worker at the Comfort Inn. In 2011, Eaton ran a clothing store in Portland, but Erickson says he now can’t find her anywhere on the Internet.
Erickson said he’s also been unsuccessful in tracking down any of the passengers or the two pilots who flew with the terrorists from Portland to Boston on US Airways Flight 5930, a small commuter plane that carried about 10 passengers that morning.
He has interviewed several reporters who covered the story in Portland in 2001, and also spoke with city officials, including Michael Chitwood, who was Portland police chief at the time.
Similar roadblocks have stymied his efforts in Boston as well, he said.
Erickson said he has filed a request with the FBI through the federal Freedom of Information Act seeking the names of people who encountered the terrorists, such as the maid who cleaned their room at the Comfort Inn and the employees at Walmart, but has not received any response.
“The case is getting more mysterious,” Erickson said. “After 13 years, the FBI still has everyone scared into silence?”
Aaron Steps, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Portland office, said the agency never comments on third-party public records requests and that federal privacy laws prevent the agency from releasing the names of people who are witnesses or who have not been indicted.
The other mystery, Erickson said, is why Atta and Alomari decided to drive from Boston to Portland and take a commuter plane back to Boston, where they joined three other terrorists and boarded American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.
If their flight from Portland had been delayed by 10 minutes, he said, Atta and Alomari would have missed Flight 11. The entire operation would have failed.
“Why did you take that risk? It makes no sense,” he said.
The FBI has never definitively determined why the pair traveled to Portland, which was the closest connecting airport to Boston.
Terry McDermott, author of “Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It,” said the reason the filmmakers are struggling to find people who encountered Atta and Alomari is simple: The terrorists were unremarkable individuals who kept to themselves.
“They weren’t memorable people,” he said. “There is this notion that these guys were exceptional and larger than life. But they were very small in almost every way. You would walk past them in the street and not notice they were any different. They were not smarter or tougher. They were just ordinary guys who were drafted into this plot that they thought was a holy war, but nobody outside could tell that.”
Fortunately for National Geographic, there is Michael Tuohey of Scarborough, the US Airways ticket agent at the Portland International Jetport who gave Atta and Alomari their boarding passes for the flight to Boston but refused to give them boarding passes for Flight 11, their connecting flight in Boston.
Tuohey, who retired in 2004, has agreed to be interviewed, Erickson said.
In 2006, Tuohey told The Associated Press that he spotted two Arabic men that day at the jetport who “looked a little confused” and had $2,400 tickets, a rarity.
He said he felt a chill in his stomach when he locked eyes with Atta. “He had a look on his face of contempt, and palpable anger,” Tuohey said.
Tuohey said he later began having hallucinations and feelings of guilt that caused him to become isolated and withdrawn.
Nelson, whose company produced Werner Herzog’s 2005 feature “Grizzly Man,” said he hopes people who are interviewed for the documentary will find it therapeutic. He said they should contact Erickson at (805) 210-5348 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We feel their pain,” Nelson said. “Their lives were ruined by coming into contact with these two people.”