OH THE PLACES THEY WENT: Clockwise from left: box cutters at Wal-Mart, one of two ATMs, the Portland International Airport, the Comfort Inn, and a Citgo station near the Airport's entrance
No physical, documentary, or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why Atta and Omari drove to Portland, Maine, from Boston on the morning of September 10. — The 9/11 Commission Report
On top of everything else that day, there was this. Like everyone, I sat transfixed by that grotesque, smoldering heap of charred and twisted metal, dumbstruck as I watched cable news for seeming days on end, drinking too much and crying over strangers I’d never known. And, of course, I was scared that it could all happen again. But there was also a deep sense of numbing disquiet.
Why? Why did Mohammed Atta, the purported 9/11 ringleader — the whey-faced Egyptian who’d wrested control of Boston-based American Airlines Flight 11, banked it sharply to the south, and then buried it at nearly 500 miles per hour between the 93rd and 99th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center — decide to spend the last night of his life in my hometown?
They say that when your house is burglarized, even if nothing especially valuable is stolen, you’re left with a profound sense of violation. That’s how I felt when I learned that Atta had rented a blue Nissan Altima on September 10, picked up Abdul Aziz al Omari at Boston’s Milner Hotel, and drove up I-95 to South Portland, Maine. That they’d spent the night before they murdered thousands wending through the same strip-mall traffic I used to drive around as a bored high-school student. That they ate in the same Pizza Hut that used to excite me as a kid.
It didn’t make sense. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen in Maine. People like that weren’t supposed to go there. Sleepy, quiet, out-of-the-way Maine? Why on earth would they? There were theories, of course — the most plausible being that airport security in sleepy, quiet, out-of-the-way Maine is a lot easier to slip through than it is in Boston. Still, my mind raced. Was there another plot in the works? A strike at unlikely locales in small-town America, with Atta’s stopover meant to put it all in motion? When they started finding anthrax everywhere, a mild panic set in. What if Atta was the anthrax man, and he’d left some behind in Portland? All it takes is a single spore. I began to entertain all sorts of wild, paranoid notions, envisioning a tiny mote somehow floating the short distance from the motel to the mall, lodging in the lungs of a family member or friend.
Of course, none of that happened. Portland is its quiet self again. But no one ever did suss out why Atta and al Omari took that 12-hour overnight jaunt to Maine. Five years later, it still bugs me. So I figured maybe the best way apprehend it is to follow in the hijackers’ footsteps. To put myself where Atta and al Omari were: places that are so familiar to me. To see again what they saw the night before they died and killed.