MICHAEL Tuohey "stared the devil in the eyes and didn't recognize him."
Now he kicks himself for not having acted, although if he had, our government probably would've punished him for trying to take the devil down.
Until recently, Tuohey worked the ticket counter at the airport in Portland, Maine, first for Allegheny Airlines, and then its successor, US Airways. He'll never forget one particular day of his 34 years of employment.
It began like any other. This married Army vet had a routine. He'd wake up at 3:30 a.m. and walk to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee from the machine he'd pre-set the night before. Then he'd flicked on the TV, watch some CNN and check the weather forecast. After feeding his cat, he'd jump in his car for the 15-minute drive to work.
On most days, the big rush would come 6-7:30 a.m. That's when the tiny Maine airport would be abuzz with travelers heading for connecting flights in Philadelphia, Boston and Pittsburgh. But it's what happened at 5:43 a.m. on a particular day that he replays in his mind over and over.
At that time on a Tuesday, two men wearing sport coats and ties approached his counter with just 17 minutes to spare before their flight to Boston. (Tuohey now knows they'd stayed the night before at the Comfort Inn down the road.) And he suspects they arrived late to take advantage of an airline system that was then "more concerned about on-time departure than effective screening."
He thought the pair were unusual. First, they each held a $2,500 first-class, one-way ticket to Los Angeles (via Boston). "You don't see many of those."
The second reason is not so easy to explain.
"It was just the look on the one man's face, his eyes," Tuohey recently told me.
"By now, everyone in America has seen a picture of this man, but there is more life in that photograph we've all seen than he had in the flesh and blood. He looked like a walking corpse. He looked so angry. And he wouldn't look directly at me."
The man was Mohamed Atta. The other fellow ("he was young and had a goofy smile, I can't believe he knew he was going to die that day") was Abdul Aziz al Omari. Michael Tuohey is the individual who checked them in at the Portland airport as they began their murderous journey.
"I looked up, and asked them the standard questions. The one guy was looking at me. It sent a chill through me. Something in my stomach churned. And subconsciously, I said to myself, 'If they don't look like Arab terrorists, nothing does.' "
"Then I gave myself a mental slap. In over 34 years, I had checked in thousands of Arab travelers, and I never thought this before. I said to myself, 'That's not nice to think. They are just two Arab businessmen.' " And with that, Tuohey handed them their boarding passes.
As they walked through the metal detectors, out of his sight, the jackets and ties were gone. Now the two were wearing open-neck dress shirts when they went through security.
Atta and Omari arrived in Boston at 6:45 a.m., where they were joined by Satam al Suqami, Wail al Shehri and Waleed al Shehri. The five then checked in, and boarded American Airlines Flight 11 for L.A. The flight was scheduled to depart at 7:45 a.m. It actually left at 7:59. At 8:46, it hit the North Tower.
Back in Portland, Tuohey, got word of the crash.
"One of the agents from another airline said, 'Did you hear what happened in New York?'... I said, 'Oh, my God!' - and I was sorry I had judged them. I thought it was an accident."
But at 9:03 a.m., when United Airlines No. 175 hit the South Tower, Tuohey knew his first instinct had been correct.
"As soon as someone told me news of the second flight, I had a knot in my stomach."
And here's the irony.
While Michael Tuohey still second-guesses himself about his conduct on that day, the reality is that, had he taken action, he probably would have been punished by our government!
Consider that in the aftermath of 9/11, American, United, Continental and Delta airlines were fined millions of dollars by the Department of Transportation for instances where the DOT believed airline employees had factored race, gender, ethnicity, religion or appearance into security-screening decisions.
Worst of all, that remains government policy. Airline employees in this country are still told in their training that they can never take into consideration the race or religion of a passenger when making judgments about suspicious behavior. This, despite that all 19 on 9/11 had those characteristics in common!
Tuohey didn't learn of the fines until he read my book, "Flying Blind." Now he gets it.
"Here you have an industry in mortal peril, and you are fining them for political correctness?" asks Tuohey.
We need more like this guy.
Michael Smerconish can be heard weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.