I was thrilled when my longtime friend, Michael Tuohey, called this week. As soon as I heard his familiar voice, I realized— this is the eve of the 22nd anniversary of 9/11.
Most of recall where we were when the planes struck the World Trade Center—just as we remember where we were when JFK was shot. On 9/11 I was at an appointment in a downtown Washington, DC office building when the planes struck the Pentagon. All buildings were evacuated. I walked a few miles home in the midst of a swarm of frightened people wondering what happened. Later, I got a call from a TV producer —they were sending a car for me to go to NY to broadcast from Ground zero.
The terror of September 11 affected most of us, but for Tuohey, who called the FBI when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, re-telling his story has “a cathartic effect.” His name — albeit misspelled is etched in history— the first footnote in the 9/11 Commission’s official report.
“It makes me feel old,” Tuohey, now 77, said. He shared his trepidation about the upcoming 22-year anniversary of September 11. “I want to be the man I was before 9/11,” he told me, “The man open to wonder and spontaneity.”
Since 9/11 and until recently that once jovial, intuitive, sandy-haired man was only a memory of his former self. Now a retired US Air ticket agent, his unfortunate destiny led him to check in two of the terrorists—Mohammed Atta, the mastermind of the attacks, and Abdulaziz Al-Omari —in Portland, ME, 22 years ago on that infamous morning.
“I’m doing well,” Tuohey said. “I landed on my feet.”
But it hasn’t been an easy journey. He remembers that morning in 2001 when he questioned following the politically correct path as he was trained to do.
For several years, Tuohey blamed himself for not only the incidents but also the suicide of Ana Zanni, the American Airlines agent in Boston who checked in Atta on his connecting flight, AA #11. Tuohey never met her but chided himself for not giving Atta his connecting boarding pass in Portland. Fear consumed his life. He has been unable to work since and retired from the airline. He had intrusive symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations. He hesitated to leave his home and was always on high alert.
Describing himself as a normal guy who grew up in a large Irish Italian, Catholic family in the mostly Black projects of Roxbury, MA. “I was not brought up to be politically correct,” he said. “We used slang words for ethnic groups.” He was drafted into the Army in the mid-sixties. He calls it “a great equalizer” and credits the military with preparing him to deal with the public. “It had a mellowing effect in terms of looking at the world.”
At 21, he found his niche working at Allegheny Airlines and then its successor, US Air, for 37 years, first in Boston and then Portland, ME. His warm and engaging personality was an asset in dealing with the public. He viewed his role as providing customer service to the passengers. When the two terrorists checked in, only 17 minutes prior to departure time, they gave Tuohey a difficult time because he wouldn’t issue a one-step boarding pass for a connecting flight on another airline. Tuohey describes himself as “a dinosaur in the business” since he didn’t believe in giving a connecting boarding pass for another airline in another city.
When he heard that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Tuohey said, “I felt a feeling in my stomach like when someone you love deeply leaves you.”
“I was afraid to leave my house after that day. I’d get dressed and not leave. I’d think, ‘Are all the windows closed?’ ‘Is the dishwasher turned off?’ I’d take an hour to check all these things. I made excuses not to go out. It was scary. I would go on-line to look up the shortest route even though I knew how to get to my destination.”
“I went to get the mail and saw Mohammed Atta’s face in the window. I was dissociated.” It was the “people jumping out of the building, the falling man photo,” that affected Tuohey the most profoundly. “I still can’t look at that without tearing up.”
But that wasn’t all. He recalls how he “would drift off and lose track of time, sometimes sitting in my parked car for 45 minutes after turning off the engine before going in the house. I would just stare out the window not realizing the time. It was like being in a time lapse,” Tuohey said. “I was in the worst place I had ever been. My rational mind was telling me one thing, but my subconscious was telling me something else.”
He remembered being in a shower with the hot water running until it turned cold. “Little did I realize that I stood there staring at the wall long enough to use up a 65-gallon hot water tank. I thought it was five minutes.” That’s “dissociation.” Two decades later we have a better understanding of trauma, but still many professionals in the psychotherapy field don’t know how to treat it.
His worse days were when his wife, Maureen Gallagher, then a US Air flight attendant, was flying. “I felt safer when she was here.” The couple recently celebrated their 25th anniversary. She’s still flying.
He sought help from one psychotherapist after another. All agreed he suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but each admitted it was more than they could deal with. All wanted to medicate him. “I didn’t want to be ‘Prozac Mike.” He still believes that medication is not the answer.
Finally, he found one therapist who understood trauma and told him he was “disassociating.” In an attempt to deal with the immense emotional pain, he disconnected from his surroundings and then snapped back with no concept of the length of time that had elapsed. Finally, some help. “But I had to embarrass US Air into covering the cost of the treatment for PTSD,” explained Tuohey.
In addition to talk therapy, the therapist used energy modalities including electrotherapy stimulation during which he placed electrodes on Tuohey’s earlobes. “I felt a small pulsed electric current,” he said. This low-level current is believed to increase brain levels of serotonin and dopamine while decreasing cortisol levels. “I sat back, closed my eyes and thought about the morning of 9/11 while the therapist controlled the electric current. It was as if I saw the whole thing in slow motion. I tried to bring myself back to that moment. It was almost like a high-definition video camera. I could see it in slow motion. I very emotional and crying.” He asked me, “What are you seeing now? What are you dealing with now? Then he asked me to think of something pleasant, something that makes me smile and laugh. That’s when I felt change. I felt like putty. It worked. The way I look at things changed. It took me from the worst place I’ve ever been to a more comfortable place.” After a half dozen hourly sessions, Tuohey felt “more relaxed and alert.”
“I was over-analyzing myself whereas now I can just be.”
Reflecting on the morning of September 11, 2001, Tuohey recalls, “One of the men had a palpable contempt in his eyes and the other, a goofy smile. I got a visceral reaction, a gut reaction, but didn’t know where to go with that. I thought, ‘If these guys don’t look like Arab terrorists, who does?’” Then he added, “I mentally slapped myself, thinking, ‘I have to be politically correct.’ These guys paid big bucks, $2,400 in cash for first class one-way tickets connecting in Boston to Los Angeles. I thought, ‘I better treat ‘em right.’ Little did I know I had the devil standing right in front of me.”
He couldn’t do much since the security regulations, which had been tightened to level three after the bombing of the USS Cole six months before, had been loosened to level two. “So, I couldn’t set them up for extra security as you could do with young Arab males prior to that time,” Tuohey said. However, he did put extra green tags on their checked bags. In accordance with the CAPS computer program, then in effect, that was a flag not to load the bags on the plane until the passenger had actually boarded.
Today, Tuohey admits he’s grown less politically correct, more suspicious, and pays more attention to his gut instinct, his intuition. “I’ve always hated political correctness. It grates on me.”
“There’s never a day that passes without thinking about that day. It’s in my blood. It’s like sky. It’s always there.” But he no longer feels responsible. He’s at peace knowing that he couldn’t have done anything differently.
“Time heals but will never heal all the wounds,” he says. “This is my soul, my pain. I don’t want to cry like a baby, but it makes me feel that way sometime.”
Tuohey won’t watch 9/11 anniversary coverage on TV. He’s relived the events in his head too many times. “It affects me to this day,” he confided tearfully. On the tenth anniversary he remembered the day enjoying a leisurely lunch with a glass of wine at this writer’s lakeside home in western Maine. He once again wants to acknowledge this somber day with his wife, valued friends and former colleagues, his dog, and the beauty of nature as he does most days when he putters around his garden at his home in Scarborough, ME.
Older now and dealing with health issues, he’s living a quieter life, proud of his lettuce and tomatoes. . . and most of all, his recovery. The memories of 9-11 return over and over. Touhey is still navigating a world — that although more trauma informed than it was at the time of 9/11-– has a long way to go toward full understanding and treatment. We now know that trauma resides in the body but releasing it and moving on is not easy.
Tuohey is a living reminder for many others. “People recognize me in the street and ask, ‘Are you ok?’ “I feel a little strange,” he confided. “I get gifts in the mail—a painting from an 11-year-old girl—Some kids have used me as a school project.”
“I’m amused,” Tuohey said timidly, “just so they don’t threaten me.”
He may be flattered and temporarily amused, but these same kids, born after 9/11 although learning about it in school, don’t believe that it really happened. Many see Tuohey as a reality TV celeb or sports star and seek autographs. It’s similar to those who doubt that the holocaust really happened. The difference is that many of the generation who escaped the holocaust or had close relatives who did were too traumatized to talk about it even within their families. Our culture has changed that today. There’s no longer the shame and traumas are more acknowledged.
But despite the media coverage which repeats each September on the anniversary, the 9/11 entries into school curriculums and the reminder every time we walk through an airport with a mandatory stop at TSA to remove shoes and walk through metal detectors, the younger generations take that for granted. Most don’t think of it as a result of security measures put in place to prevent a reoccurrence. That change, albeit an inconvenience at best now feels automatic. Let’s not forget it is a direct result of the attacks on 9/11.
Tuohey’s hope for the country is that “we never have to go through something like that again.”