Tales of Terror

In the chaotic days following the attacks, a reporter came to expect the unexpected

"That's Mohammed!" she screamed. "He was in here Thursday." Not only had Atta been in there five days before the attack, he had called in an order once per week for the past three weeks. He used his own name to place the orders. "He always ordered six veggie specials on wheat, and he always wanted them cut into quarters," she said. It was apparent that Atta had been holding meetings of cell members somewhere nearby in the weeks before the attack.

Alicia said on the previous Thursday Atta had picked up the sandwiches with another man who told her he was a pilot. No other journalist had found these girls. In fact the FBI hadn't been there yet.

Most of the time during "The Tracking of the Terrorists," reporters were simply reacting to FBI sightings. The feds showed up somewhere, and before long the locust media swept in. Apartments, condos, motels, flight schools, libraries in Broward -- where the villains availed themselves of free e-mail service. In many of these venues, the FBI had asked or ordered individuals not to talk.

Details

Novelist John Lantigua is a former New Times staff writer. His Ultimate Havana was published by Signet in April.

Read related New Times stories

But at World Gym in Boynton Beach, where three of the hijackers had trained, Joe Farnoly, a personal trainer, talked to me about the men. He gave me what he had just repeated for two camera crews: how they showed up several mornings per week; how they never spoke to anyone else and simply smiled whenever he said hello. When I asked him what machines they had used, he took me to one section of the gym and told me something he hadn't told TV: "They never used anything but the upper body machines. They didn't do anything cardiovascular, or for the legs. They were getting ready to overpower people on those planes. That's why they were here."

I spent two days showing photos of the hijackers to hookers in Hollywood. I figured if young men who were about to commit suicide had done some drinking that Friday, maybe they had also gone looking for love. One lady working the east side of U.S. 1 said Alshehhi looked familiar, but she was too strung out to stake a story on.

Meanwhile the Newsweek research desk had found a possible Hollywood address for Alshehhi in 1999. The spelling of the last name was very close. The landlord told me a woman of Pakistani descent had rented the place and lived with a man who matched the description of Alshehhi. Her name was Anita. I traced her to another apartment less than a mile away, called the manager of that building, and was told that, yes, she still lived there.

That evening I waited for her to arrive from work. I asked a neighbor, but she didn't know when Anita might get home. I sat in my car in the small parking lot as night fell. At about 9:00 a gold Toyota matching the description I had of hers pulled into the lot. I could see a woman behind the wheel. She started to park near me but stopped, then backed up and wheeled off quickly down the street. The manager had obviously called to tell her a journalist was looking for her, and she didn't want any part of me.

I waited awhile longer to see if she returned. She didn't. So I drove back to Miami and returned the next day at 7:30 a.m. When she didn't emerge from the house by 9:00 a.m., I knocked on the door. After a minute a heavyset, bleary-eyed woman in her thirties answered. Her looks were clearly Middle Eastern, although she spoke English without a foreign accent. I introduced myself. We talked and within a few minutes she had convinced me that she didn't know Marwan Alshehhi, or any other hijacker. "Are you the one who was waiting last night?" she asked.

I said I was.

"Well, I'll tell you something," she said. "You made me cry all night."

I apologized.

"You don't know what it's like to be me these days," she said touching her face. "To look the way I do. It's very scary. I was raised here and educated here. I'm an American. I'm not a terrorist. Now my landlord and my neighbor are wondering why you're looking for me." She shook her head. "This isn't fair."

I apologized again and said I hoped it all passed over soon. Then I drove back to Miami and a day later I stopped tracking terrorists.

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