What Really Happened
By Der Spiegel Magazine, Paul De Angelis and Elisabeth Kaestner
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Cordt Schnibben
All rights reserved.
Attack from the North
New Jersey, September 11, 4:40 A.M.
Jan Demczur did not need an alarm clock. He had a schedule, a plan. The day, the month, the year — his life — were divided into panes of glass. For the last ten years Demczur had been working his way through the World Trade Center as a window washer. He cleaned nonstop, over and over again from the beginning, even weekends. All part of his plan. Demczur had come a long way but hadn't yet reached his goal. Some day he wanted to be a real American. That was why he had to get going so early.
Jan Demczur was forty-eight years old. He had a Polish accent, a Polish face, and an American house, only half of which belonged to him. He had two daughters and a wife, still sleeping. It was Tuesday and he would start on the 48th floor, like every Tuesday. He had plans for the month, for the week, and for the day. All worked out by himself. They provided the panes of glass; he worked out the plan. He'd been working this job for ten years; he didn't need to waste time.
Demczur went into the bathroom and shaved. Then he got dressed. Outside, Interstate 78 was already humming, but now, just before 5 A.M., you still noticed the breaks between cars headed for or emerging from the Holland Tunnel. Another twenty minutes and the breaks of silence would give way to a constant, noisy din. Demczur's small house was only a few blocks from the highway. It was noisy here, but a tree grew right outside the window.
At 5:20 Demczur pulled the front door shut behind him. No one heard. Everyone was asleep.
Portland, Maine, About 5:00 A.M.
Mohamed Atta woke up for the last time to the sound of small aircraft in a motel 105 miles northeast of Boston and 280 miles northeast of New York City. Cessnas and Pipers had been buzzing around the two runways of the nearby Portland airport since 5 A.M.
Atta's (no-smoking) room in the Comfort Inn was furnished with fake Andalusian furniture, dark dressers, elaborate bedside tables, carved bedposts, easy chairs, and blankets in bright summery colors.
To the right of the door were the toilet and tub, to the left a small wash alcove set into the wall, a poisonous neon light flickering above it.
Do not leave your house unless you are washed and clean, for the angels will forgive you if you are clean. That was what it said in the terrorist "primer" later found in Atta's suitcase.
If Atta followed the primer's commandments, he shaved that morning, threw water over his face, washed up for the last time. Did he undo the waxed wrapping and use the one-ounce wafers of motel soap, one for the face, the other labeled "deodorant"? Did he smell of fruity Comfort Inn Botanical Shampoo on September 11?
At 5:33 A.M. he handed in his pale blue key card at the reception desk. At his side was his night's roommate, Abdulaziz Alomari. They didn't have breakfast, but hurriedly left the motel. Waiting outside was a blue Nissan Altima from Alamo Rental Cars in Boston, with Massachusetts plates, number 3335VI.
Minutes later, the four-door Nissan pulled into the Portland airport's parking garage.
At 5:43 A.M. Atta and Alomari were in the lower level of the elongated steel-and-glass building, checking in for US Airways Flight 5930 to Boston, a flight operated by Colgan Air.
At 5:45 they passed through security one flight up: an X-ray image of their bags unsettled no one.
New Jersey, 5:30 A.M.
For Jan Demczur, it was a ten-minute walk through his neighborhood to the PATH train that would take him from New Jersey to New York. The driveway in front of his garage was still glistening and wet. That would be forgotten in the course of the day. The forecast was for good weather. Demczur breathed in the morning air. For a few years the weather hadn't mattered so much because now he worked exclusively inside. It was his reward for seniority; he had worked for American Building Maintenance longer than any of the other fifteen window cleaners at the World Trade Center.
Turnover at work was high. Most of the window cleaners had arrived only recently in America. There were Yugoslavs, Albanians, Turks, and the Irish, but only one Pole. Two of them worked the window washing machines located on the towers. Years ago Demczur had had that job too. You got a good view up there, but otherwise it was boring. Only the two top stories and the nine lowest had to be done by hand, since the machines didn't reach there. But Demczur didn't have to get out there anymore. For the last three years he had worked only inside the North Tower — he had specialized.
At this hour of the day the PATH train to New York was nearly empty. At 5:50 Demczur got off at the World Trade Center, five stories below ground level. He took the escalator up. He was almost alone. The stores in the underground shopping passage were still closed. At 5:54 he swiped his card in the time clock on Lower Level One, North Tower. He took the elevator to the 3rd floor where, like the other window cleaners, he had a locker that held his work things and his tools — pail, rags, detergent, and squeegee. A few of his coworkers were there, though not all. They started work at different times, and often one would oversleep. Demczur ran into Rako Cami, an Albanian who worked the machine on the roof of the South Tower, and Fabian Zoto, who cleaned the windows on the observation deck every morning before the first visitors arrived. The regular operator of the machine on the North Tower was on vacation and his substitute seemed to have overslept again.
It wasn't easy finding reliable workers. They talked for only a minute; it was still early. Demczur combed his hair again, to the side, the way he'd parted it since he was a boy.
Portland, Maine, 6:00 A.M.
After a fourteen-minute wait at Gate 11, Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari boarded the nineteen-seat propeller-driven Beech 1900, destination Boston.
The plane took off at 6:04, only slightly late, and headed out into the half light over Casco Bay. Atta and Alomari sat next to each other, surrounded by unsuspecting commuters. At 6:17 the beaches began to glitter. It would be a clear day — cloudless, warm, windless.
The sky smiles, my young son, it was written in the "primer." Open your heart, welcome death in the name of God.
It was only late afternoon of the day before that they had driven from Boston to Maine. At Logan Airport they had climbed into their rental car, taken Route 1A from the big airport traffic circle, leaving behind them the car showrooms, furniture stores, Laundromats, Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, and myriad convenience stores — America zipping past like one great supermarket.
The trip through Massachusetts and New Hampshire into southern Maine takes an hour and a half on the six to eight lanes of I-95. Their Nissan merged into the quiet stream of traffic. Driving along unhurriedly, they crossed Piscataqua Bridge, located about halfway between Boston and Portland, and reached South Portland shortly after five. Atta and Alomari registered at the Comfort Inn, 90 Maine Mall Road, at 5:43 P.M. Because they were leaving again very early the next day, they paid the $149 for the room in advance. Their last evening began.
They spent it like people who have a long life ahead of them and lots of time to kill. They drove their car along highways flanked by bluish, shimmering supermarkets, hamburger drive-ins, and car dealerships. Sometime between 8 and 9 they were spotted at a Pizza Hut on the Maine Mall Road. Their last meal.
At 8:31 P.M. the surveillance camera inside the Fast Green ATM in the parking lot at Uno's Chicago Bar & Grill caught pictures of them: In the foreground Alomari can be seen making faces, feigning an expression of helplessness, then laughing broadly as if enjoying himself.
Atta stood behind him, a short man with a flat face who in the video always seems bored, gray, and washed-out. Both were filmed through a strip of mirror above the ATM panel. They look like two buddies getting money on a Saturday night for a bout of drinking — average types, regular guys, maybe at worst small-time crooks.
Atta made his last purchase between 9:22 and 9:39 P.M. at the Wal-Mart on Payne Road in Scarborough, south of Portland. Video cameras show him going in and out through the store's glass doors. He was wearing a black-and-white polo shirt, and when he left he was carrying a plastic bag.
No other security camera took their picture that night, no eyewitness reported seeing them. At some point they returned to the Comfort Inn. At 10:23 a waning moon rose in a clear, starry night.
The evening before you perform your deed: Shave all excess hair from your body, perfume your body. Recite the verses about forgiveness. Remember that this night you must listen and obey because you will confront a grave situation. Get up during the night and pray for victory; then God will make everything easy and protect you.
It took fifty minutes for the prop plane to reach Boston. The flight was smooth; there were breakfast rolls encased in plastic, coffee, soda. Atta and Alomari might have been tourists, sales reps, sports officials. Their covers worked. For years they had used the disguise of assimilated, secular Muslims. Atta was wearing a bright blue short-sleeved shirt; Alomari's shirt was beige. Both carried medium-sized shoulder bags; their hair was cut short, no beards, no jewelry.
As soon as you board the airplane and have taken your seat, remember that which you were told earlier. God says that when you are surrounded by several nonbelievers, you must sit quietly and remember that God will make victory possible for you in the end.
For years already Atta and Alomari had had an appointment with God. Their education had been difficult and challenging. Now the time had come. There was no turning back.
How did the attackers live for so long undiscovered in the hated country of the godless? How did they get in and get out, and where did they stay? Who trained them as pilots? What were they looking for in the decrepit motels at the end of the Las Vegas strips? Why did they pick fights over bills of less than $50 in greasy bars just before the Big Day? What would have become of the attackers without the document forger of Falls Church, Virginia? Could Josh Strambaugh, Deputy Sheriff of Broward County, Florida, have averted the whole nightmare way back on April 26, 2001, when he pulled over Atta in a red Pontiac, by arresting him for driving without a license?
Newark, New Jersey, June 3, 2000
Fifteen months before Mohamed Atta slammed that jet into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he stepped onto American soil for the first time at Newark Airport; it was a warm, sunny Saturday. Atta, thirty-three, was Egyptian, son of a Cairo lawyer who had raised him to hate Jews. The FBI assumes that Atta spent several days in Prague before his departure. It is thought that while there he met with an Iraqi agent.
Marwan al-Shehhi, presumed pilot of the plane that crashed into the South Tower, entered America on May 29, 2000, aboard a Sabena Airlines flight from the United Arab Emirates via Belgium. Like Atta, he landed at Newark. And, like Atta, he was in possession of an HM1 student visa that permitted him to attend a flying school. Al-Shehhi, twenty-three, was born in the United Arab Emirates, the son of an Islamic preacher. He arrived in Germany as an eighteen-year-old on a military scholarship, studied German at the Goethe Institute in Bonn, visited a schoolmate, and later moved to Hamburg.
Ziad Jarrah, the presumed pilot of the plane that would crash in Pennsylvania, arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27. Jarrah was twenty-seven, Lebanese, from a respectable background: a popular guy who liked to drink and study hard.
Jarrah also held a student visa, and the people who met him during the coming year found that he bounced through life, like someone from whom a burden had been lifted, like someone who no longer needed to ask deep questions about the meaning of life.
The three men knew one another from Hamburg, where they had learned German and studied city planning, electronic engineering, and airplane construction. There they had become fanatic Muslims. There their plans had crystallized — plans to take part in something the likes of which the world had never seen before.
When your work is done and everything has gone well, everyone will take each other's hands and say that this was a deed done in the name of God.
Before they entered the United States, all three reported to German authorities that their passports were missing. Any suspicious stopovers in "rogue states" were thus expunged from their passports and personal profiles — a good idea, since the three had not come to seek their slice of the American dream.
Shortly after arriving, they got in touch with Hani Hanjour, the presumed pilot of the plane that would crash into the Pentagon. The thirty-two-year-old Hanjour was from Saudi Arabia and had first come to the States nearly ten years before.
Fifteen months before the attack, the most important members of the four terror teams, the four pilot ringleaders, were all in the United States. Atta, Jarrah, and al-Shehhi remained on the East Coast, in Miami. Hanjour spent most of the coming year out west, in California and Arizona. Their assignment for the next few months: learn how to fly a plane.
Venice, Florida, August to December 2000
Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi parked their car on the grass of Huffmann Aviation. Straight ahead lay the flat, one-story building. In the middle was the reception desk, to the left the offices of the flight instructors, to the right a narrow hallway leading to the Cockpit Café, which always smelled of coffee and hamburgers. Through windows of the Cockpit visitors could watch student pilots taking off and landing. Nobody was surprised that two men with Arabic names were registering for flying lessons. That's not unusual here.
The flight training needed before you can apply for a commercial pilot's license costs about $9,000. It takes four months and assures a lot of foreign students a good job back home. By the time they pass the exam, student pilots have spent somewhere around 250 hours at the control stick of an airplane and are entitled to fly an Airbus or a Boeing. Rudi Dekker, flight instructor and owner of Huffmann Aviation, is proud of the fact that pilots from around the world are trained in the United States.
Atta and al-Shehhi began their training on a Cessna 152, a single-engine propeller-driven plane that is common to flight schools. The Cessna 152 is a good-natured plane; it forgives most student errors and one would have to be pretty inept to get into serious trouble.
Atta learned. He learned how to turn on the main switch, activate the starter, speed up, and pull the stick back after 250 yards and take off. He learned how to turn left, bank right, how to descend and how to land again. He struggled through the maze of symbols on flight maps and charts, learned the correct way for a pilot to talk with air-traffic controllers — how to report in and sign off — how to interpret a weather report, and he did it all without making a fool of himself.
In the course of his training Atta moved up from the Cessna 152 to a Piper Warrior and finally to a two-engine plane. Like the rest of the flight trainees, Atta read three thick books on flight theory.
Rudi Dekker didn't particularly like Atta. He often walked moodily among the airplanes, making it clear to everybody that he wasn't there to make friends. After a while his sullen face got on Dekker's nerves. He took Atta aside and advised him to change his attitude.
In October Atta and al-Shehhi switched for three weeks to Jones Aviation Flying Service in Sarasota. Once again Atta came across as unpleasant and aloof. Flight instructor Tom Hammersley says, "Atta always knew better." The terrorists went back to Huffmann. There, Anna Greaven found reasons not to like Atta either. She was also a student and often flew with him. Most of the time she felt like waving her hand in front of his face to pull him out of the frightening rigidity that gripped him while flying. He reminded her of a robot. Al-Shehhi seemed the exact opposite. Greaven compares al-Shehhi to a clumsy bear, always laughing, following Atta around like a bodyguard. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Inside 9-11 by Der Spiegel Magazine, Paul De Angelis and Elisabeth Kaestner. Copyright © 2002 Cordt Schnibben. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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