Florida: terror's launching pad
Floridians who encountered the hijackers, many up close and personal, are left with haunting memories.
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Mohamed Atta, thought to be mastermind of the attacks, and Marwan al-Shehhi dined and drank at Shuckums Seafood Raw Bar & Grill in Hollywood.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002
Five days before Labor Day last year, Maria Siscar-Simpson opened her door to two skinny guys she had seen around her Delray Beach condo.
Just kids, she thought at first. But, judging by the rude force with which they pulled on her door, she corrected herself: Men.
They lived in the condo above hers. A rolled-up towel had fallen from their balcony onto a roof outside her back window. They wanted to get it now. They did not say please.
Ms. Simpson pulled the door back and shouted, "No!" If they needed a towel, she could get them one.
They looked confused. She told them again in English, Spanish, Italian. They shouted at her and pulled again, determined to get in.
Thank God for Eddie the maintenance man, Ms. Simpson, 54, thinks today. Her pre-Sept. 11 hero.
He shouted the men away.
The Aug. 28, 2001, incident would have been forgotten by now had it not been for the mayhem that unfolded two weeks later in New York City and Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.
On that day, Sept. 11, Ahmad Al Haznawi and Ahmed Alnami -- the "kids" who tried to bully past Ms. Simpson -- were pushing through a different door. They stormed the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 out of Newark.
The two were among 14 hijackers who moved about Florida for months without detection before Sept. 11, some honing their flying skills at pilot schools, others joining gyms to bulk up and learn fighting tips, all of them plotting to the last detail a mass murder that would stand as one of history's most detestable acts.
Across the southern third of the state, from Venice to Hollywood and up the east coast to Delray Beach and Lantana, the men left mostly mundane impressions on the people they encountered. Most were not worth a second thought until Sept. 12.
The second thoughts are what haunt Ms. Simpson almost a year later, causing sleeplessness, anxiety and an inability to watch or read Sept. 11 news reports. She also cannot bury the notion that accomplices still may be out there.
"I sleep two, three hours a day; I didn't have that problem before," she said, reaching under her glasses to wipe away a tear. "I want it to go away, but it won't go away."
As the anniversary of the attacks approaches this month, the remembrances of Floridians like Ms. Simpson will be more complicated than those of the New Yorkers and Washingtonians who witnessed the terrorists' final act.
There, at the scenes of destruction, the date to remember is Sept. 11.
In Florida, however, it could be any number of dates -- perhaps July 1, 2000, when Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, two leaders of the plot, began flying lessons in Venice. Perhaps it should be Aug. 29, 2001, a year ago last week, when Atta and two other hijackers purchased their Sept. 11 airline tickets on a computer at a Kinko's copy store in Hollywood.
And while the primary emotion up North may be raw hatred for the terrorists, it is different for Floridians who saw them up close so shortly before the deed. Their horror is muddled by galling memories of well-dressed young men who paid their bills, carried briefcases and fooled everyone.
"They were just great customers," said Brad Warrick, the Pompano Beach businessman who rented cars to Atta and al-Shehhi. For years, Warrick has conducted a quick "gut check" of everyone who walks through his door, declining to rent to those who give him a bad feeling.
"Didn't have it with these guys," he said.
[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
|HUBER DRUGS, DELRAY BEACH: Co-owner Gregg Chatterton had a run-in with Mohamed Atta, who wanted something to treat burning, itching hands. Atta also demanded cough medicine for Marwan al-Shehhi.
At the Panther Motel in nearby Deerfield Beach, August is a time when many Arabs come to vacation, said innkeeper Richard Surma, who rented rooms to two groups of the hijackers in the weeks before the attacks. The last of them checked out Sept. 9.
"I'm looking so close, eye to eye. I see that they're young and talking, and they look like they're trying to make it like students would be," he said. "And just two days later they're dead."
Even Ms. Simpson, despite her run-in with Al Haznawi and Alnami, remembers them at other moments around her complex when they somehow seemed softer than the stoic faces she later identified in FBI mug shots.
"If I would have seen someone that hard looking," she said, "I would have run the other way."
As she viewed their pictures last week, it was the first time she had seen them since January, when the FBI stopped in for one of many followup interviews.
"My, my, my, here we are," Ms. Simpson said, studying the dead men who still invade her dreams.
|DELRAY BEACH RACQUET CLUB, DELRAY BEACH: Maria Siscar-Simpson, above right, recalls how Ahmad Al Haznawi and Ahmed Alnami tried to barge into her condo, above, and retrieve a towel that had fallen to her balcony. She refused to let them in, and a maintenance man eventually chased them off. She still has sleepless nights over the incident.
What is publicly known about the terrorists in Florida sounds substantial, yet it covers only a fraction of the time they spent in the state.
Court documents in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, outline how the three main leaders in Florida -- Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah -- arrived here in the summer of 2000. Interviews and media accounts fill many of the gaps left by the FBI, which last week declined requests to update the investigation.
Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah had attended Technical University in Hamburg, Germany, in the late 1990s. They had been roommates there, participating together in an Islamic student group that smited Western ways. Atta had signed a "will" in 1996, pledging to die in a "holy war" against the infidels.
The federal indictment against Moussaoui tells how more than $114,000 from the United Arab Emirates was funneled that summer to Atta and al-Shehhi through SunTrust bank accounts in Florida. Much more would come later from the al-Qaida terrorist network, according to investigators who put the cost of the operation at nearly $500,000.
The indictment says Atta and al-Shehhi took flying lessons from July to December at Huffman Aviation, a flight school in Venice.
Jarrah emerged that summer in Venice as well, taking piloting classes at a neighboring flight school.
When Atta and al-Shehhi got their commercial pilots licenses in December 2000, Florida was exhaling after the close election that put George W. Bush in the White House.
A few days later, Atta and al-Shehhi moved over to Florida's east coast, in Opa-Locka, where each paid $1,500 cash for three hours in a Boeing 727 simulator.
In the spring and summer of 2001, eight additional hijackers arrived in the United States and settled in Florida. Nine opened SunTrust bank accounts. Three others arrived in San Diego, rounding out the five-man team based in California.
That spring and summer, the Florida contingent made itself at home in South Florida, renting apartments and condos, attending gyms, going to restaurants. They seemed to concentrate heavily in Hollywood and Delray Beach.
The plot was well under way.
After a yearlong investigation, huge blocks of the terrorists' time remain a mystery to the public.
How many Floridians unknowingly passed Atta and al-Shehhi as they scooted around in a 1996 white Ford Escort and a faded blue Chevy Corsica?
Both cars were rented to them by Warrick for about $120 a week. Both have since been sold at book value to a Pompano liquidator who wants to resell them to a museum, with proceeds going to the American Legion and the Florida Sheriff's Youth Ranch.
Another question: How did Atta and al-Shehhi travel as they left Venice?
Did they wind their way to the east coast across Route 80, slicing through the citrus groves of LaBelle and the sugar cane fields of "America's Sweetest Town," Clewiston? Did they shoot through Alligator Alley instead?
Did they venture north to Tampa Bay? Did they really come to Florida and never visit Disney World?
How many people pulled up behind Jarrah at stop lights in Hollywood? That was him in the sporty Mitsubishi Eclipse, which he often shared with his sometime roommate, Al Haznawi.
[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
|WARRICKS RENT-A-CAR, POMPANO BEACH: Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi rented cars here in August and September 2001. President Brad Warrick, here with a customer, called Atta and al-Shehhi great customers, who gave him no reason to be suspicious.
Moving frequently in and out of apartments from Hollywood to Delray Beach, all of them would have had to make frequent trips up and down gritty Interstate 95 and U.S. 1.
Untold numbers of Floridians were perhaps stuck in traffic with Atta, who also drove a used red Pontiac Grand Prix.
For those who did stumble across them and knew it, the encounters with Atta and al-Shehhi appear to be the most memorable.
"My hands," Atta grumbled rudely one day. "They're itching and they're burning."
Gregg Chatterton recites the words, using a slight Middle Eastern accent to imitate the serious, square-jawed Egyptian. The co-owner of an independent pharmacy along Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach, Chatterton approached Atta and al-Shehhi one afternoon in early August 2001 after they spent a suspiciously long time in the skin cream aisle.
He asked what happened to make Atta's hands raw, but the patient was evasive. The pharmacist handed him a 1-ounce tube of Acid Mantle, priced at $5.49, to replenish the natural acid content in his hands. Chatterton began walking away when Atta, who stood 5 feet 8, slapped an intimidating hand against the druggist's chest. It stopped him cold.
"My friend," Atta barked, motioning to al-Shehhi. "He's got a cough."
The friendlier al-Shehhi planned a violent death in less than a month. He would be told to praise Allah and hold out his chest as the plane hit the World Trade Center's south tower, creating the fireball that would land on every front page in the world. Until then, however, he wanted something that would get him through the night.
Chatterton gave him a bottle of Robitussin DM.
The incident ensured that he would remember the pair when the FBI came calling a few weeks later. "When somebody touches you like that," he said of Atta, "you remember that customer."
By his count, Chatterton has told that story to reporters 112 times. It has given rise to the theory that Atta irritated his hands while handling anthrax.
Atta's inflammation is only one of the hijacker puzzles that remain unresolved.
Rudi Dekkers, president of Huffman Aviation Venice, cannot understand why Atta and al-Shehhi took the trouble to get their commercial pilot licenses.
"You don't need a license to fly an airplane into a building," he said.
When the pair trained at Huffman in summer and fall of 2000, they seemed no different than scores of foreign students who flock to Florida flight schools every year, Dekkers said.
"I wish we could have seen something -- I wish," he said. "I do think every time when I see them that I would like to kill them myself."
Warrick, too, is stumped by the hijackers' ways. When al-Shehhi returned the rental car for the last time Sept. 9, he asked that the charge be removed from Atta's credit card and placed on his.
"If you're going on a suicide mission, who cares who pays for what?" he asked.
He wondered why they didn't just dump the car at the airport, and why Atta would be so attentive as to call from Venice when the maintenance service light went on.
It mirrored how most of the men dutifully reported their address changes to the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles.
Warrick said the FBI explained that the men kept their noses clean to the end, in case the plot was aborted and they had to fade back into the South Florida landscape.
Perhaps the only slip was a traffic ticket Atta received April 26, 2001, in Broward County. The system slipped as well by not putting him in jail when he missed his court date.
The FBI also had answers for Maria Siscar-Simpson, the Delray Beach woman who fended Al Haznawi and Alnami off at her door.
The men knocked three more times that day, but she never answered again.
Agents told her the towel on her roof probably contained clothing with something important to their mission, perhaps a confirmation number from the Sept. 11 airline tickets they had purchased that day. They found evidence, she said, that the men had lowered themselves on guy wires to retrieve the towel that evening.
In the two weeks before Labor Day last year, the 14 Florida-based hijackers started moving on.
From Aug. 26 to 29, 10 of them booked flights on three planes that, two weeks later, would knife into the World Trade Center and plunge to the earth in Pennsylvania. The San Diego contingent would take care of the Pentagon.
On Sept. 8, Atta, al-Shehhi and one other man enjoyed a final night out at Shuckums, an oyster bar on Hollywood's cosmopolitan Young Circle. Atta reportedly played video games, sipped cranberry juice and munched on spicy chicken wings. Al-Shehhi downed five screwdrivers.
A month later, a radio station auctioned the right to sledgehammer the seats they used.
Some other famous terrorist sightings never panned out, including that of the manager at a Daytona Beach strip club, who told the world he heard three men spewing anti-American venom and predicting bloodshed the night of Sept. 10. When his story seemed to change with each telling, law enforcement moved on.
A Punta Gorda restaurant owner swore that Atta had washed dishes in her kitchen. It was a "brief brush with evil," she told CNN. Later, the real dishwasher's wife and friends came forth. He was Tunisian, they said, and still very much alive.
Among the last to leave Florida were Atta and al-Shehhi, who checked out of the Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach. Surma, the proprietor, had seen several of the hijackers come and go in the final weeks of their Florida sojourn.
Suspicious after they left behind flight manuals and maps of the eastern United States, Surma walked across State Road A1A on Sept. 13, when news of the Florida connection was spreading. There, sheriff's deputies were interrogating a Middle Eastern man who pleaded with them: "In the name of Allah, I am innocent!"
They quickly uncovered evidence at the Panther, which meant that Surma had been among the last people to see the hijackers in Florida.
He cannot say how that affects him today.
"Sometimes it's better to be silent," he said last week, growing quiet and misty-eyed in the welcome shade of a balcony. "Hard to explain."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
|Arab vacationers often rent rooms at the Panther Motel & Apartments in Deerfield Beach in August. Innkeeper Richard Surma, left, said he thought the two groups of hijackers were students.
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Florida: Terror's launching pad:
The 19 plotters and their day of terror