CNN Interview with Ticket Agent Michael Touhey, Touhey reportedly checked in Atta

post Aug 30 2006, 11:27 AM
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January 18, 2005 - 20:00 ET

ZAHN: And welcome back. Day two of our weeklong series, "Defending America," looks back at September 11 and the moment that started it all. Not when the first plane hit the first tower, but the moment when the so-called terrorist ringleader arrived at an airport in Maine, heading towards Boston and a connection with infamy.

Michael Touhey took Mohamed Atta's ticket this morning. His story is one you'll only hear here. Here's Drew Griffin.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The 9/11 Commission would describe the dawning of September 11 as temperate and nearly cloudless. By 4:00 a.m., Michael Touhey was already at work at the U.S. Air ticket counter at the airport in Portland, Maine.

MICHAEL TOUHEY: Crystal clear blue sky. It was just a fabulous to go to work.

GRIFFIN: One hour and 43 minutes into Touhey's day, two men approached his counter rushing to catch the 6:00 flight to Boston.

TOUHEY: They had a tie and jacket on. All right? And as I'm looking at them, you know, they're holding their IDs up, and I'm looking at them. It's not nice, but I said, "Jeez, if this doesn't look like two Arab terrorists, I've never seen two Arab terrorists."

GRIFFIN (on camera): That was your...

TOUHEY: Thought.

GRIFFIN: ... first reaction?

TOUHEY: That was my thought as I'm looking at them. I'm looking at their licenses, and I'm looking -- and that thought ran through my mind.

GRIFFIN: Where did that thought go?

TOUHEY: I don't know. Immediately, I felt guilty about thinking something like that. I just said, "This is awful." How -- you know, I've checked in thousands of Arabic people over the years. You know, doing the same job. Businessmen. I said, "These are just a couple of Arab business guys."

GRIFFIN (voice-over): But something about these two men was different. Touhey says the younger man, Abdul Aziz Al-Omari, could barely speak English. The other was Mohamed Atta. Touhey says he had the eyes of a killer.

TOUHEY: He did. He had the deadest eyes I've ever seen.

GRIFFIN: Setting aside his gut reaction, Touhey issued the boarding passes. The flight was leaving in 17 minutes. And Atta and Omari still had to clear security. But Atta told Touhey he wanted not only the boarding passes for the U.S. air flight to Boston, but also the passes for their connecting American Airlines flight to Los Angeles. Atta, the mastermind behind the 9/11 plan, was facing the plan's first obstacle, a gate agent with an attitude.

TOUHEY: When I just gave them the ticket, I gave them the boarding cards for the Boston flight. And he says -- he says, "Isn't this -- isn't there one-stop checking?" And I said, "No, you're connecting to American Airlines down in Boston."

GRIFFIN: Had Atta argued, he would have missed his flight. Touhey says the two men turned in a huff and hurried to the gate. Less than three hours later, Touhey was told by a co-worker that American Flight 11 had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

TOUHEY: I said, "Oh, my god." I said, "I put two people on that plane." And I was feeling horrible. You know?

Here I was thinking these guys were terrorists. You know? And I just had a flashback.

I said, "Now the poor bastards are dead." And then you got the word on the second plane and it was like a punch in the stomach.

GRIFFIN (on camera): You knew then that those two guys were involved?

TOUHEY: As soon as I heard it. The second I heard it. I said, "I was right. I was right."

You know, and it was just -- I don't know how you describe it, how your stomach twists and turns. You get sick to your stomach.

GRIFFIN: Still does?

TOUHEY: To this day. Not so much that -- I felt ashamed that I did not react to my instincts.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): His instinct to label the Arab men that morning as terrorists, to slow down their check and to search their bags, to possibly make the ringleader miss his flight, all of that is post-9/11 thinking. On that September morning, hassling two men simply because they were Arabs would not have been politically correct, Touhey says. His job was to get them on the flight, and he did.

Once he and other employees realized what was happening, they called the FBI. And within hours, Touhey found himself viewing this videotape of the two Arab men he had ticketed pass going through security. He told the FBI who they were. He also told them that he observed something curious on the tape.

TOUHEY: And they said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, these guys had on -- they were very business looking. They had on ties and jackets." And I said, "If you look at these guys, they both have like open collar, they have like dress shirts with an open collar." I said, "But that's them."

GRIFFIN: Touhey went home after that and watched the dreadful events unfold on television. His wife, a flight attendant, was grounded in another city. He was alone.

The next day, the self-described tough kid from a Boston housing project broke into tears. He talked with a psychologist the airline referred him to,then he called the one person he knew could help.

TOUHEY: I called my mother and she said, "What are you crying for?" And I said, "I feel bad about all them people that got killed." And she says,"What did you have to do with it?" And I told her. And she says, "I'm coming up."

GRIFFIN: His 91-year-old mother told him it wasn't his fault, a judgment he believes the 9/11 Commission has now confirmed. Warnings had been conveyed to the highest levels of government, but no one had instructed Mike Touhey to be more vigilant.

Had there been any kind of alert, Touhey says he would have acted on his non-politically correct gut instinct. Instead, when he read this report, he learned he was far from the only one to allow the hijackers to carry out their mission.

TOUHEY: That helped. I have to admit, that helped. I -- after seeing all the information that was available, I'm saying, "Well, jeez, why am I blaming myself, if they all knew this stuff?" By the time it got to me, it was already, you know, a done thing.

GRIFFIN: Could it happen again? Touhey, who has now retired to rural Maine, says probably not. He also agrees with the 9/11 Commission that another terrorist plot most likely won't involve airplanes. Touhey says he just hopes that the next person chosen by chance to make that first contact with evil, whoever becomes the first footnote of the next attack, does what he did not and reacts when his gut tells him to.

TOUHEY: I had the devil standing right in front of me. You know? And I ignored him. GRIFFIN: Drew Griffin, CNN, Scarborough, Maine.


ZAHN: Michael Touhey's name is in the very first footnote of the 9/11 Commission's official report, but he says they misspelled it.

Coming up next, a woman who lives somewhere in the Midwest. We can't tell you exactly where, but she's fighting the war on terror in her own home. We'll be back.
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Posts in this topic
- driver   CNN Interview with Ticket Agent Michael Touhey   Aug 30 2006, 11:27 AM
- - driver   TOUHEY: They had a tie and jacket on. All right? A...   Aug 30 2006, 11:33 AM
- - driver   Press Release - Hijackers FBI website October 4,...   Aug 30 2006, 11:36 AM
- - driver   Photos from Portland Airport security check point.   Aug 30 2006, 11:44 AM
- - driver   http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=245...   Aug 30 2006, 11:49 AM
- - driver   From the article above "The ticket agent sai...   Aug 30 2006, 11:54 AM
|- - quakergirl   From the article above "The ticket agent sai...   Apr 30 2008, 03:12 PM
- - driver   http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/13/flight.schoo...   Aug 30 2006, 11:56 AM
- - driver   http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report_Ch1...   Aug 30 2006, 12:03 PM
- - driver   http://www.ict.org.il/spotlight/det.cfm?id=671 Ac...   Aug 30 2006, 12:06 PM
- - amazed!   Sounds like Touhey is working for the feds, and sa...   Mar 12 2007, 11:10 PM
- - timzan9   The whole Atta story rings untrue to me. Why take ...   Aug 28 2007, 01:04 PM
- - JackD   no, it makes perfect sense for Atta. really -- i...   Nov 27 2007, 06:39 PM
- - amazed!   Great posts you guys! Just the right amount o...   Jan 1 2008, 11:10 PM
- - albertchampion   why are you still doing this? don't you know ...   Jan 2 2008, 03:12 AM
- - amazed!   Well Albert, because pilots are cut from a special...   Jan 2 2008, 11:18 PM
- - albertchampion   NO, SOME PILOTS. a great many are quite content t...   Jan 4 2008, 11:45 PM
- - albertchampion   yes, quite correct about atta. in fact, daniel hop...   Apr 30 2008, 07:53 PM
- - SR71   I will be the first to comment on this thread in y...   Sep 23 2013, 04:39 PM
- - amazed!   SR71 Good points all, and a great post!   Oct 1 2013, 11:05 AM
- - excontroller   QUOTE (driver @ Aug 30 2006, 10:27 AM) ht...   Mar 1 2014, 10:50 AM
- - excontroller   I still can't get past the idea many people wh...   Mar 1 2014, 10:56 AM
- - excontroller   QUOTE (excontroller @ Mar 1 2014, 09:56 A...   Mar 1 2014, 11:03 AM

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