Arriving at the Portland, Maine, airport last weekend to catch a flight back to D.C., I was happy to spot an old friend waiting in the long security line. Turns out we were both booked on the same flight, so we sat together and had an hour and a half to catch up on the plane. I hadn’t seen Michael Tuohey since last summer at his retirement party from US Airways at his home in Scarborough, Maine. Tuohey, a young-looking 59, retired from the airline after 37 years as an agent, in part “because this industry never recovered from 9-11,” he said. I was feeling some guilt pangs that I hadn’t been in touch with him this summer … but soon found out that was nothing compared with the guilt Tuohey was feeling.
This usually happy-go-lucky redhead burst into tears as he answered my questions as to how he was enjoying retirement. Tuohey told me about his repeated nightmares and hallucinations – all because he knew his job had required him to be “politically correct.”
Just as the morning rush at the ticket counter had subsided on Sept. 11, 2001, Tuohey was about to step outside for a cigarette when he spotted two men dressed in jackets and ties who looked a little lost. Tuohey told me, “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.’ ”
He checked them in for a flight from Portland to Boston. “One had a palpable contempt in his eyes and the other a goofy smile.” Tuohey asked the “stupid questions” required at the time and for ID. “I got a visceral reaction, a gut reaction, but didn’t know where to go with that,” he told me.
The passengers checked two bags, held two one-way, first-class tickets connecting on American Airlines in Boston to Los Angeles. “These guys paid big bucks, $2,400 in cash. I thought I better treat ’em right,” Tuohey told me. He couldn’t do much since the security regulations, which had been tightened to level 3 after the bombing of the USS Cole six months before, had been loosened to level 2. “So I couldn’t set them up for extra security as you could do with young Arab males prior to that time,” Tuohey said. Tuohey did put “extra green tags” on their bags. In accordance with the CAPS computer program then in effect, that was a flag not to put the bags on the plane until the passenger had actually boarded.
The two passengers checked in only 17 minutes before flight departure time – they showed up at 5:43 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight. They gave Tuohey a difficult time, insisting on one-step check-in. That meant that the agent in Portland would give them boarding passes for both flights so that they wouldn’t have to go to the ticket counter in Boston. “I didn’t like giving boarding passes for another airline in another city,” said Tuohey, calling himself “a dinosaur in the business.” So he held back the connecting flight boarding pass when it came out of the machine.
The elder of the two men, supposed Sept. 11 mastermind Mohammed Atta, kept repeating, “They told us one-step check-in.” Tuohey remembers saying firmly to the terrorists, “You’re running late. Get to the gate.”
“Atta stared at me with a dead stare. There’s more life in this picture than there was in his eyes,” related Tuohey as he pointed to a newspaper photo. “Finally, he said something in Arabic to the kid with him – Abdulaziz Alomari – and they turned around real quick and headed for the gate.” In retrospect, Tuohey thinks it was probably something like “I’m the leader of the gang, and I have to get to Boston.”
Shortly thereafter, word spread through the Portland airport about the airliner crashing into the World Trade Center in New York. Tuohey called the FBI to say, “We put ’em on in the morning.” He told the FBI that there was a video camera over his position at the counter, though he didn’t know yet that it was inoperative. The two suspects were caught on another airport video heading to the gate after they had changed clothes.
At home that evening, watching TV news from New York, Tuohey said, “It sunk in.” He emotionally described his pain as “the feeling in your stomach when someone you love deeply leaves you.”
Tuohey told me that he felt responsible not only for the events of Sept. 11 and the loss of lives but for the death of the American Airlines agent, Ana Zanni, who checked in Atta in Boston and has since taken her own life.
“Zanni never would have come in contact with them had I done my job and issued both boarding passes in one step,” said Tuohey, who had never met Zanni.
His wife, Maureen, a flight attendant, was on the road that day, and Tuohey wanted to talk to someone privately. He called the US Airways employee assistance program. They referred him to a psychologist who didn’t want to hear about it … and another … and another. He says his post-traumatic stress disorder has worsened since his retirement. He asked the FBI to keep his name out of the press, which they did. But when the 9/11 Commission released its report earlier this year, Tuohey was mentioned in the first footnote.
“I’ve always hated political correctness. It grates on me,” he told me.
“Had it not been for political correctness … .”