Federal investigators are continuing their probe into the deadliest terrorist attacks ever on American soil, amid growing evidence that those responsible practiced for months by repeatedly taking the flights they eventually hijacked.
In Maine, investigators say they have not been able to determine whether the men identified as Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari or any of their accomplices made trial runs through the Portland International Jetport before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Atta and Alomari flew from Portland to Boston, then hijacked a plane bound for Los Angeles and crashed it into the trade center in New York.
One piece of evidence that might provide a clue to the hijackers' activities is the videotape from a security camera inside the jetport terminal. Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood released a still image from the video earlier this week that showed Atta and Alomari hustling through the terminal's security checkpoint at 5:45 a.m., just minutes before their 6 a.m. flight departed.
Chitwood said Portland police had provided the Sept. 11 video to the FBI. He also said Portland police had six months' worth of tape from the camera but would view it only if needed to corroborate the recollections of witnesses.
Chitwood could not be reached for comment Friday. Earlier this week, he said there was no evidence that Atta and Alomari had any connection with the state "other than arriving here to catch a flight."
Steve McCausland, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, offered a similar opinion Friday. But he did not close the door completely on the possibility of a stronger connection.
"There seems to be little evidence that these two have any history in Maine with prior visits, but we'll probably never know that," he said.
There also does not appear to be evidence that the terrorists had much of a support network in Maine, he said.
An FBI spokesman in Boston said the agency would not comment on the investigation.
To some experts, the idea that the terrorists did not make numerous trips from the jetport to evaluate security, count the number of passengers and gather other information for their mission is not credible.
"One of the things that is pretty apparent after the fact is that these people were very thorough, and money seems not to have been an issue for them," said Donald Snow, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama and an expert on terrorism. "We know some of them spent quite a bit of time casing Logan (International Airport in Boston). I would imagine that they would have checked Portland out and noticed that security isn't the tightest. . . .
"They spent so much time planning the execution of this thing, I can't believe they would have left that to chance. It would violate everything else we know about them," he said.
Several national media outlets, including USA Today, reported Friday that the 19 hijackers began looking for flights to hijack and testing flights out by boarding them months ago. Reports, citing unidentified law enforcement sources, said authorities confirmed the theory by examining flight manifests and airport surveillance tapes and interviewing airport employees.
USA Today reported that hijackers made dry runs as early as April and scouted other flights as hijacking candidates but eliminated them from consideration.
"Clearly, if they left from Portland, that wasn't the first time they were there," said Harvey Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University and the author of a number of books on terrorism. "They didn't just pick Portland at random."
At the FBI's request, the nation's 478 FAA-certified flight schools are submitting lists of people who have taken flight lessons in the past five years. The 13 flight schools in Maine are among those submitting lists. Bel-Air Services in Auburn, for example, gave the agency about 700 names, along with students' credit card numbers.
Since late last week, the nation's flight schools have been grounded. The FAA has allowed only instrument-rated pilots who file flight plans to fly. The ban is intended to help air traffic controllers track smaller aircraft. The owners of several Maine flight schools say the ban has hurt them financially, and they hope it will be lifted within the next few days.
The FBI has also contacted numerous businesses in Greater Portland to see if employees had any sightings of the terrorists.
On Friday, managers at several hotels near the jetport and the Maine Mall, including the Embassy Suites and the Hilton Garden Inn, confirmed the FBI had checked their guest lists for the days preceding the attacks and had interviewed their workers. But all said they could not recall Atta or Alomari staying with them.
"I've given them everything we could possibly supply," said Stuart Barwise, general manager at the Embassy Suites hotel in Portland. "But we were not involved to any degree."
Police also interviewed workers at the Pizza Hut in South Portland and DiMillo's Floating Restaurant.
Atta and Alomari stayed at the Comfort Inn in South Portland the night before the attacks. The next morning, after catching the US Airways flight that took them to Boston, they boarded American Airlines Flight 11 and, with the aid of three accomplices, crashed the plane into the trade center's north tower at 8:48 a.m.
A man working at the jetport said he is "pretty sure" he saw Atta, whose photo has appeared in newspapers and on television, a couple of hours before the flight.
Chris Lyons of Brunswick, a newspaper delivery driver, said he saw four or five men he described as Middle Eastern near the entrance to the jetport terminal between 3:40 a.m. and 4 a.m., near where he parks his car to drop off papers.
He said the men were driving an older, bluish-gray American sedan with a square trunk and carried a number of suitcases. The men abruptly ended their conversation when he said hello to them, Lyons said.
"They clammed up," he said.
Lyons said he called Portland police after the attacks and was interviewed by a detective over the phone, but has not been contacted by the FBI. Portland police said they checked his tip and did not think it was connected to the attacks because the behavior varied from the pattern shown by the terrorists.
The men Lyons saw were traveling in a large group, carried lots of luggage and arrived hours before any flight, police noted, while the hijackers carried little baggage, moved in small groups and arrived just before their planes departed.
Staff writers Tom Bell and David Connerty-Marin contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Allan Drury can be contacted at 791-6461 or at: email@example.com
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