Final hours of hijack monster – he waited until last minute to buy boxcutters
New York Post – New York, N.Y.
Author: CINDY ADAMS in New York and JOHN LEHMANN in Portland, Maine
Date: Oct 12, 2001
(Copyright 2001, The New York Post. All Rights Reserved)
Hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta had one final job to do before bunkering down in his hotel room for his last night of sleep – he had to go shopping for boxcutters.
Staff members at the Wal-Mart in South Portland told The Post yesterday that Atta bought the $1.84 boxcutters he used to hijack American Airlines Flight 11 less than 12 hours before he commandeered the plane.
The store’s surveillance video shows Atta’s shopping expedition on Monday, Sept. 10 started at 9:22 p.m. and ended 17 minutes later. He got there just in time. The store closed for the day at 10.
The staffers, who asked not to be identified, said they had been warned not to give details.
“We all know what he bought,” one of them said. “We’re just not allowed to talk about it.”
The staffer was surprised the hijackers had not made their deadly purchase earlier.
“It’s unbelievable they would leave it to the last minute,” the staffer said.
Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams refused to talk about what Atta purchased.
The shopping expedition was part of a flurry of activity undertaken by Atta in the Portland area that night.
The Post, retracing the final steps of Atta and his accomplice Abdulaziz Alomari, visited the hotel room the two shared before carrying out the murderous plot that took the lives of more than 5,000 people and sent shock waves across the world.
The pair checked into the Comfort Inn in South Portland at 5:43 p.m. on Sept. 10, after driving up from Boston, a two-hour trip, in a blue Nissan Altima.
General Manager Laura Wale cautioned, “We’re continuing to cooperate with the FBI investigation and can’t say much.” But she revealed that the hijackers shared Room 233.
It is believed they paid $179 for the double room. They kept to themselves, rarely talking to staff and other guests.
As word of the inn’s infamous role spread in the days following the atrocity, a few people actually asked to spend the night in the “room where Atta slept,” she said.
If they got the room, it was by accident.
The FBI released the room back to the Comfort Inn after 24 hours, and the hotel began renting it. But guests were not told who had spent the night there.
Those who slept there didn’t get many thrills for their money.
With its framed floral prints, Styrofoam coffee cups and gold bedspreads, the room that was the last lair of a pair of monsters looks like any other highway hotel room.
One guest – who wondered if his room had housed the hijackers – said, “It’s kind of creepy, when you think they were sleeping there, speaking on the telephone, using that shower.”
Atta and Alomari left their hotel room sometime around 7 p.m.
There were reports the two were sighted at two nearby restaurants – a Pizza Hut and Weathervane Seafood Restaurant – between 7 and 8:30 p.m.
Workers at the Pizza Hut were still jumpy: “We’ve got to try to run a business here,” the restaurant’s manager said.
A waitress at Weathervane said two Middle Eastern-looking men – one who resembled Atta – dined at the restaurant that night and asked for the details of how the fish and chicken were cooked.
Sue Paquette, a spokeswoman for Weathervane, said the two men may have been part of a group of five Muslim men – wearing traditional Middle Eastern dress, including turbans – who dined at the restaurant two nights before, on Saturday.
The group of five made an effort to be “gregarious and friendly,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the staff haven’t been able to say for sure whether any of the men were involved in the hijack,” she said.
At 8:31 p.m., Atta and Alomari were photographed at a nearby Key Bank ATM and 20 minutes later at a Fast Green ATM in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno restaurant.
At 9:15 p.m., they visited JetPort gas station near Portland’s airport. An attendant said they asked for directions to Wal-Mart, where Atta began his shopping seven minutes later.
The pair checked out of Comfort Inn at 5:33 a.m. on Sept. 11 and drove to the airport, only seven minutes away.
At 6 a.m., they caught a plane to Boston – where they connected with the doomed Flight 11.
Atta’s final visit to Portland on Sept. 10 was apparently not his first.
Several people report having seen him in the months before.
Barry Mason, who works at Portland Micucci Wholesale Grocery, store said he’ll never forget his brush with Atta, whom he saw in the store three or four times. The last time was on Aug. 29, when Atta bought Syrian pita bread.
“I looked at him and made eye contact,” Mason said. “His eyes were so cold and scary – I looked away and thought, I hope he never comes back.'”
Other people told investigators that men answering the terrorists’ description were spotted playing video games in various Portland arcades.
The terrorists’ interest in Portland continues to baffle local police and the two FBI agents conducting investigations in the city.
They’re still trying to establish whether a terrorist cell was set up in Portland to assist the hijackers.
Local and federal authorities are now retracing their steps – re- checking old tips and looking into new ones.
They’re re-interviewing workers at every restaurant, store and arcade the terrorists may have patronized.
But the investigation hasn’t been helped by rivalry between the FBI and Portland cops.
Local Police Chief Michael Chitwood said his men conducted dozens of interviews and sifted through hundreds of tips.
He said he shared all the information they dug up with the FBI – which told him nothing in return.
“I have 160 cops, and the FBI had two agents in Portland,” he told a local newspaper.
“We talk to people every day. If you’re looking for someone, the people most likely to have run into that person is local police.”
But Chitwood did say his men have been able to run down one tip that had sounded promising. People said an Afghan man nicknamed Omar had been in the city talking about wanting to learn how to fly a plane.
He said he passed on the information to the feds – then followed up on it, even though the FBI warned him to “back off.”
His cops eventually found Omar and were convinced he was not connected to Atta.
The FBI has not responded to the chief’s charges.
THE LAST DAY OF ATTA
Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari at the following places
1. 5:43 p.m. Check into Room 233 at the Comfort Inn, 90 Maine Mall Road, South Portland
2. 7:30-8 p.m. Believed to have visited Weathervane Seafood restaurant, 380 Gorham Road, South Portland
3. 8-9 p.m. Visited Pizza Hut, 415 Maine Mall Road, South Portland. Stayed only 15 minutes
4. 8:31 p.m. Photographed by security cameras at the Key Bank ATM, 445 Gorham Road, South Portland
5. 8:41 p.m. Photographed by security cameras at the Fast Green ATM, in the parking lot of UNO’s restaurant, 280 Maine Mall Road, South Portland
6. 9:15 p.m. Seen at Jetport Gas station to ask for directions to Wal-Mart, 446 Western Ave, South Portland
7. 9:22 p.m. Shopped at Wal-Mart, 451 Payne Road, Scarborough
Photos: NY Post: Steven Hirsch
-MOHAMED ATTA “Cold and scary” eyes. -DEMONS IN MAINE: Room 233 (above) at a Comfort Inn in South Portland was where Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari spent their last night. They bought $1.84 boxcutters (right) at a local Wal-Mart and were photographed at a gas station (below) on Sept. 10, the night before embarking on mass murder.Steven Hirsch (above and left)