SCARBOROUGH — Michael Tuohey gets a lot of phone calls every September.
As the airline agent who handed the boarding passes to 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Al-Omari at the Portland International Jetport on Sept. 11, 2001, Tuohey has been asked to repeatedly tell his story.
It’s no surprise that for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, reporters from news organizations local and national have been calling Tuohey. In covering an event that had and continues to have global implications for travel, security and domestic and international policy, Tuohey provides an “everyman” voice. He was a normal guy, just doing his job, who came face to face with two killers who would change America and the world.
On Wednesday, Tuohey sat in the kitchen of his Scarborough home, having already conducted at least three interviews this week. He had another to set up later in the evening. He paced back and forth while he spoke, smoking cigarettes, nursing a glass of wine and stirring a long-simmering Italian gravy.
“It’s nothing I had any control over,” he said about his role in the 9/11 narrative. “It’s something that happened to me. I can’t change it. I’m not making any money on it. If you’re interested, I’ll tell you, but I don’t walk around like I’m a celebrity.”
On that day, around 5 a.m., Atta and Al-Omari approached the USAir counter with their tickets for Flight 5930 to Boston Logan International Airport. There they would connect to American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles.
Tuohey said he felt uneasy about Atta, who seemed intense and angry.
“If this doesn’t look like an Arab terrorist, no one does,” he said he thought to himself. Worried he was stereotyping the customer, he asked the routine security questions and gave Atta and Al-Omari their boarding passes.
A new airline policy would have allowed Tuohey to give the two men boarding passes for both flights, but he didn’t like the idea of giving customers a free pass through security. He set the two up for Portland clearance, but informed them they’d have to go through security again in Boston.
Atta didn’t like it, Tuohey said, but he eventually gave up and boarded.
“He seemed like an angry person, but I just chalked that up to being 5:30 a.m.,” he said. “There aren’t many cheery people that early, I’m afraid.”
When Flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Tuohey said he thought, “‘Oh my god. I put a couple guys on that plane.'”
Once the second tower was hit, though, he said he knew it was an attack, and assumed Atta and Al-Omari had been involved. As was later confirmed, Atta was the mastermind of the 9/11 plot, and likely flew Flight 11 into the North Tower.
Tuohey was later interviewed by the FBI and the 9/11 Commission. He flew under the radar for three years until the 9/11 Commission Report, with his name in it, was released. That’s when the phone calls began. CNN was first. Later he was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show.
“Oprah’s my homegirl,” Tuohey said as he showed off a picture of the TV star with him and his wife.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Tuohey said he sobbed along with the rest of the country, glued to his TV set. Later he consulted several psychologists, to deal with the guilt he felt about not being able to do anything. He started doing what a psychologist would later tell him was “disassociating” – disconnecting from his surroundings and snapping back into place with no concept of how much time had passed.
“I’d pull into my driveway, and without realizing it I’d put my car into park and just sit there, for 20 minutes, staring,” he said. “Same with the shower. I’d get in and think I was there for five minutes, but soon I’d realize the water had gone cold and I was there for 30, 35 minutes. I was gone.”
Tuohey has since recovered, but he said he doesn’t plan to watch any of the decennial news coverage of the attacks. He said he can’t stand the idea of watching video of victims jumping out of the Twin Towers, falling to their deaths. While he’s now an atheist, Tuohey was raised Catholic, and said he knows people trapped in the towers were faced with an impossible choice.
“Those people were wrestling for their souls,” he said. “Do they burn to death or do they jump?”
He’s also annoyed that 10 years later, the feeling of unity the country felt after 9/11 – and again a few months ago when U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden – hasn’t stuck. He’s annoyed, too, by the role religion plays in politics. People, especially politicians, can’t put aside their differences and “work for the greater good,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean Tuohey is a model for some post-9/11 embrace of diversity. He considers himself a “pragmatic liberal” – he’s against the wars, decried President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and considers the 1970 Kent State shootings one of America’s great tragedies – but since the attacks, he said, he’s become less “politically correct,” and is suspicious of Muslims.
“They’re not to be trusted in the least bit,” he said. “Look at the examples, of our ‘friends’ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. With friends like that, you don’t need enemies. … I wouldn’t go out of my way to be unkind to (Muslims in the U.S.), but I won’t deal with them. It’s all based on fiction. Religion is just fiction.”
But Tuohey doesn’t normally get into all that; he said he stays away from politics. He retired in 2004, after 37 years with the airline. He didn’t plan to stop working, but said the industry sort of collapsed around him after 9/11.
Nowadays, he keeps to himself. He’s got a garden behind his clean, modern two-story home, where he grows tomatoes, onions and lettuce. He travels a bit with his wife, Maureen, who is still a flight attendant for US Airways. He likes to barbecue and to watch football.
Tuohey said he hopes Sept. 11 – declared “Patriot Day” just months after the 2001 attacks – doesn’t become the kind of holiday where people forget the somber nature of the day, simply seeing it as a day off from work. He said it should be a solemn day, to remember the people who died in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.
He said it was one of the many tragedies that have befallen the United States, both domestic and foreign, and that we should keep it in perspective without becoming hysterical.
“Keep it solemn. If you’re religious, say your prayers,” he said. “Me? I’m going to avoid television. I’m going to have a nice lunch, and if it’s a nice day, I’ll maybe have a little cookout on my back deck, a nice glass of wine and a few smokes.”
“I’m gonna watch football,” he said.
Scarborough resident Michael Tuohey is a retired airline agent who initially processed Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Al-Omari at Portland International Jetport on Sept. 11, 2001. The men would later join three other terrorists in hijacking American Airlines Flight 11 and flying it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.