WASHINGTON - A hero janitor who helped victims escape from the World Trade Center's north tower before it collapsed told the 9/11 panel that he came across one of the hijackers in the building a few months before the attack.
William Rodriguez, 43, of Jersey City met with the commission for the first time last week.
A 20-year Trade Center employee who swept stairwells, he swears he saw United Airlines Flight 175 hijacker Mohand Alshehri in June 2001 and told an FBI agent in the family center at Ground Zero about it a month after the attacks. He never heard back from the bureau.
Rodriguez said he was working overtime one weekend cleaning rest rooms on the concourse and mezzanine levels when Alshehri approached him.
"I had just finished cleaning the bathroom and this guy asks me, 'Excuse me, how many public bathrooms are in this area?'" Rodriguez told the Daily News.
"Coming from the school of the 1993 [Trade Center] bombing, I found it very strange," Rodriguez said. "I didn't forget about it."
After Al Qaeda's attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Rodriguez recognized Alshehri's mug in newspapers.
"I'm very certain, I'll give it 90%" that Alshehri was casing the towers before the attacks, the WTC ex-porter said.
It is believed that American Airlines Flight 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta cased New York City targets, including the Diamond District, but Rodriguez may have given the 9/11 panel the first eyewitness testimony about a hijacker inside one of the towers before the terror strike.
Little is known about the Saudi-born Alshehri, 22, or his travels after arriving in Miami on May 28, 2001. Alshehri used the alias Abu Dujana, the name of Islam's mythic Red-Banded Warrior, who fought for the Prophet Muhammed. It's a name other Al Qaeda attackers also have used, including one who claimed responsibility for the train bombings in Madrid on March 11 of this year.
Rodriguez is credited with saving lives on 9/11 and for helping immigrants get 9/11 funds. He kept mum until now because he assumed the FBI was investigating his lead. FBI officials say they have never heard of Rodriguez but do not discount his story.
The revelation, if true, comes as the panel meets this week to scrutinize - again - the military's Sept. 11 response. FBI agents and CIA officials also will testify about the post-attack probe of the plot.
Originally published on June 15, 2004