If three eyewitnesses are correct, terrorist hijacker Mohamed Atta came to the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites-Longboat Key Sept. 7 — the day the media announced President George W. Bush would be coming to the area Sept. 11 to speak at a Sarasota school. Atta may have been there to meet a second hijacker, Marwan Al-Shehhi.
Local authorities became aware of the incident when Longboat Key resident Milton Stein told them of a strange conversation he had with a Holiday Inn bartender, Darlene Sievers.
Stein said when he sat down at the bar, Sievers told him he was sitting in the same seat Atta had used. The bartender then went on to help other customers and Stein could not question her further about what she meant.
After getting the report, police asked Sievers to what she was referring. Sievers told police Atta came to the bar and ordered a rum and Coke. She said she remembered his face because of the sizeable tip he left her. Atta gave her a $20 bill for a $4 drink and let her keep the change, Sievers said.
Atta left the bar after another Middle Eastern man arrived, Sievers said. When the FBI released Atta’s picture Sept. 27, Sievers called the FBI and told authorities what she saw, she told Longboat Key police.
Local police left the investigation at that, but a waiter at the Holiday Inn said Atta did not go far from the bar.
The waiter, Frank Boyal, said Atta and his companion had the hotel’s $18.95 “Surf and Turf” buffet on Sept. 7. “They were just here. I remember the face.”
Boyal said he was struck by the two men’s lack of appetite. The pair only picked at the buffet, Boyal remembered.
Boyal didn’t overhear the two men’s conversation, because it was a busy night and he was “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” he said. Although he knew Sievers had spoken with the authorities about the sighting, Boyal chose not to mention it to anyone, he said.
The Holiday Inn’s assistant food and beverage director, Mark Bean, was watching television with his girlfriend when he first saw the pictures of the hijackers. Immediately, Bean said, “I know that guy,” but he was not referring to Atta.
The two men stand out in Bean’s memory because they did not look like the usual clientele, he said.
Bean did not get a look at the man Sievers and Boyal believe was Atta. He only saw the back of that man’s head. But he did get a look at the second man.
Bean believes Al-Shehhi — whom the FBI says crashed into the World Trade Center on United Airlines Flight 175 —was the other man eating the buffet.
Bean said he didn’t mention the sighting because he didn’t want people thinking he is crazy. But after he learned Sievers spoke to the FBI, Bean decided to tell investigators what he saw as well.
Bean believes the pair paid cash, because there are no credit card receipts in either man’s name. The Holiday Inn had no video cameras to confirm the sighting. Sievers told police she believed Atta came to Longboat Key three weeks before Sept. 11. Boyal does not agree, he insisted Atta came on Sept. 7. Bean also thinks the incident occurred on Sept. 7 — a night the trio worked together.
It is believed that the three weeks Sievers is referring to is the time frame between Sept. 7 and when the FBI released Atta’s picture on Sept. 27.
As to what the meeting means to the Sept. 11 investigation, the FBI had no comment. Asked whether Bean and Sievers were indeed interviewed, Special Agent Sara Oates said she “cannot confirm or deny that.”
Both Al-Shehhi, 23, and Atta, 33, are believed to have been pilots in the Sept. 11 attack. According to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Atta entered the United States on June 3, 2000, and Al-Shehhi came stateside in May of the same year.
The FBI site also states both men may have resided in Hollywood, Fla. Atta had recently taken flight lessons at a school in Venice.