Md. was among last stops for hijackers

Those who recall encounters are haunted by proximity to agents of tragic event

September 09, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

The Laurel hotels where they stayed have been renovated and still attract an occasional tourist with a camera.

The restaurant where they ate pizza has changed owners three times, and the new one says he knows nothing of its infamous former customers. The tiny airport in Bowie that refused to rent them airplanes struggles under the onus of heightened security rules and threatening calls from strangers.

Before they crashed seized planes and changed the world, the Sept. 11 terrorists - at least seven of the 19 - lived out their last days in Maryland, lifting weights, washing clothes, looking at pornography, buying groceries and polishing their flying skills.

Five left the state Sept. 10, spending a final night in Virginia before boarding American Airlines Flight 77 at Dulles Airport and crashing it into the Pentagon. One departed Sept. 9, drove to Newark, N.J., and got on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into rural Pennsylvania after a struggle between passengers and hijackers. Mohamed Atta, the ringleader, flew in on Sept. 7 and flew out Sept. 9.

They barely spoke to anyone, even those who greeted them, and they left behind little in the way of evidence for investigators who would follow, combing for clues.

But five years later, their chance encounters with those who met them have left an indelible mark.

"It's almost a curse," said Marcel Bernard, chief flight instructor at Freeway Airport in Bowie, where the hijacker pilot of Flight 77 went up a few times with instructors. "It's haunting in a way, to always have to think about this."

Bernard has told the story maybe 100 times, he says, to the FBI and myriad federal agencies, to the news media, to curious flight students and the occasional 9/11 conspiracy theorist.

Hani Hanjour came to Freeway Airport and asked to rent a plane. He went up with two flight instructors on three occasions, but Bernard eventually refused to rent him a plane because he barely spoke English - a requirement for flight certifications - and because of his poor flying skills.

The two last spoke on the phone a few weeks before the attacks, when Hanjour complained about an $80 no-show charge. Hanjour never paid.

After Sept. 11, when details about the terrorists surfaced, Bernard and other Freeway employees received "hate calls" laced with accusatory expletives.

Freeway lost $600,000 in revenue after the Sept. 11 attacks because it and other small airports near Washington were closed for 13 weeks. Now, with a list of restrictions that limit where instructors can fly with students and when they can take off, Freeway isn't making much money.

"A lot could be said to the fact that it was airlines, not general aviation, whose security was breached," he said. "We are the scapegoat. ... And so here we are now, our business is in jeopardy, our livelihood in jeopardy."

He says things carefully, but words spill out as he talks about Hanjour.

"I'm not comfortable knowing I was close to someone who did something so evil and had such disrespect for life," Bernard said. "Of course, I wish, in hindsight, that I would have known something. In those days, suicide hijackers didn't exist."

Bernard and others who saw the hijackers in the weeks before the attacks are left to wonder: Was there anything I could have done?

The Maryland State Police conducted a review of a traffic stop by one of its officers, who pulled over one of the terrorists in the days preceding the attacks, to see if the officer should have done anything more. The conclusion: no.

Trooper Joseph Catalano stopped Ziad Jarrah, believed to have piloted Flight 93, shortly after midnight Sept. 9 and gave him a speeding ticket for traveling 90 mph in a 65-mph zone just north of the Susquehanna Bridge on I-95.

In a video of the encounter released in 2002, Catalano is seen asking Jarrah about his Springfield, Va., address, checking the license plates of his New Jersey-registered Mitsubishi and giving Jarrah a ticket. For much of the seven-minute tape, "I'm Already There" - a country hit by Lonestar - can be heard faintly playing in the background.

Catalano gave Jarrah the ticket and said, "Here's your information; you're free to go."

Investigators recovered the ticket in the glove compartment of the Mitsubishi, left at the Newark airport.

After a review, Catalano was found to have acted according to procedure. The terrorist was not wanted for any crimes and was not on a watch list, so a background check would have been fruitless. The trooper checked to be sure the car was not stolen, which it wasn't.

He remains on the force at the same rank, a trooper 1st class. He declined, through a state police spokesman, to comment for this story.

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