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Originally published September 5, 2011 at 5:36 PM | Page modified September 5, 2011 at 5:47 PM

Floridians haunted by brush with hijackers

Ten summers ago, Delray Beach police Officer Tom Quinlan handled a service call about a dog bite in a condo elevator.

Cox Newspapers

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —

Ten summers ago, Delray Beach police Officer Tom Quinlan handled a service call about a dog bite in a condo elevator.

The caller wasn't the man who was bitten but the owner of the little white dog.

"She was nervous that the guy would call animal control and they would take the dog away from her," said Quinlan, who is now retired. "She didn't want to get her dog in trouble."

So the officer went looking for the dog-bite victim, who had walked from the elevator into an apartment at the Delray Racquet Club.

"He answered the door. He had his right hand wrapped up," Quinlan said. "But he said it was fine. He didn't want to do anything about it."

The woman was relieved. Her dog was safe.

It seemed like one of those meaningless incidents until weeks later, after a band of 19 suicide hijackers conducted a coordinated attack against America on Sept. 11, 2001.

That's when Quinlan learned the man bitten by the dog wasn't just anybody. He was Mohamed Atta, the operational leader of those al-Qaida marauders, the man who piloted a jetliner into the World Trade Center's north tower.

And that's when the details of the officer's brief encounter with Atta took on new meaning.

"When I was there that day, I could see into the kitchen," Quinlan recalled. "There were four or five guys sitting around the kitchen table and they were looking at a blueprint. I thought they must have been engineers.

"In hindsight, you just grit your teeth."

Seen at gym, library, restaurants

At least seven and possibly nine of the hijackers lived in Delray Beach in the months leading up to the attack. Three others lived in Boynton Beach.

They bided their time here, working out at a gym, eating at restaurants and using the public library's Internet access. And along the way, they crossed paths with people who never imagined the bold plot they were hatching in our midst.

Gloria Irish spent three weeks of her life that summer driving Marwan al-Shehhi in her car. Irish, a real-estate agent, was helping Al-Shehhi find a place to live in Delray Beach.

"He was the only customer I ever had who called up to say he would be five minutes late," Irish said.

Before coming to Delray Beach, Al-Shehhi, 23, had lived in Germany with Atta, met Osama bin Laden at a training camp in Afghanistan and spent time on Florida's west coast learning to fly while on a student visa. He had come to Delray Beach in the summer of 2001 to help Atta in "coordinating the arrival of most of the muscle hijackers in southern Florida," according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

On Sept. 11, Al-Shehhi would pilot a Boeing 767 airliner into the World Trade Center's south tower.

"He told me he was learning to fly," Irish said. "I remember one day, I asked him why he wasn't flying that day, and he said, 'There's too many clouds.' "

"And I thought, 'He's got a long way to go to be a commercial pilot.' "

Al-Shehhi was accompanied on these apartment-hunting trips by Nawaf Alhamzi, 25, who would be one of the muscle hijackers on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon.

"I had never met Arabs before, and there they were," Irish said. "I wanted to tell them I was Jewish, but I didn't."

The hijackers never gave her a reason to suspect anything, she said. If only they had.

"Al-Shehhi told me he couldn't swim," she said. "I wish I drove my car off a bridge with them, because I swim real good."

Landlord's dream tenants

Al-Shehhi eventually found a place to his liking, a one-bedroom unit at The Hamlet Country Club condominiums in Delray Beach.

At first, the unit's owner, Jacqueline Allen, thought her new tenant would just be Al-Shehhi, who was described to her over the phone as "a really nice young man" who had come to America to learn how to fly.

"I thought, 'Good for him,' " Allen remembered. "So many young people these days just want to collect welfare. And here was this young man who wants to learn how to fly planes and go back to his country."

And then she heard there would actually be two men, not one, in the one-bedroom apartment.

"So I started imagining college-student keg parties," Allen said. "But then the agent told me told me it was probably going to be more like doilies and flowers. So I thought, 'Great! They're gay. That's good. They'll take care of the place.' "

They seemed like dream tenants. They paid the whole three months' rent in cash upfront, and they left a month early. But after 9/11, they made Allen's life miserable.

"It's not been a fun time," she said. "I've had three sets of FBI agents come and talk to me. I've cooperated fully. I've had death threats, and I just had my second full complete IRS audit.

"I guess they need to make sure that al-Qaida hasn't dropped a bundle of money on me," she said.

But it has been only a bundle of aggravation, she said, especially from people who wonder how she could have rented to terrorists.

"They had Florida driver licenses. They had no criminal backgrounds," Allen said. "I'm a Realtor. I can't discriminate."

Chemical terror from the sky?

There's some anecdotal evidence to suggest that while the hijackers were in Palm Beach County waiting to execute their plan, they did research on another type of airborne terror.

Willie Lee, who flies agricultural crop-dusting planes, got tired of seeing the group of Arab men drive up in a rented van, showing up unannounced at Belle Glade's airfield to snoop around and ask questions.

"There was a different bunch every week, but Atta was here several times," Lee said.

"They'd park out by the gate and want to get on the airplane," Lee said. "I would never tell them nothing. They were asking the types of questions that other people didn't ask.

"One day, I asked them, 'Why do you want to know so much about these airplanes?' and they said, 'We want to spray back in our country.'

"And I said, 'What are you going to spray? Rocks? There's nothing there but rocks.' I had a bad feeling about them."

Lee said he called police to run them off, but nothing ever happened.

"Had the police come out here and actually done something, that whole thing could have possibly been prevented," Lee said. "I think about it quite often. I sit in the office and start thinking about what could have been, or what should have been, and it bothers me."

Drugstore almost called 911

And there's other evidence to suggest that the hijackers may have been doing research on a chemical option while they were in South Florida that summer.

Gregg Chatterton was a pharmacist at Huber Drugs in downtown Delray Beach. He remembered a visit by Atta and a couple of the other hijackers. Atta had come to the drugstore looking for ointment for his hands.

"It was obvious that he dipped both his hands in bleach or something," Chatterton said. "You could see the line of demarcation on both hands."

Chatterton said he asked Atta what had happened, but the answers he got were evasive.

Chatterton told him to put a product named Acid Mantle on his hands. As Chatterton started walking away, Atta stopped him by sticking an arm across the pharmacist's chest.

"It was one of these martial arts moves, and my assistant looked at me and mouthed, 'Nine one one?' " Chatterton remembered.

A tense moment passed. Chatterton hesitated, and before he decided what to do, Atta told him he needed something else: cough medicine for one of his friends.

Chatterton wonders what would have happened if he had nodded to his assistant to call 911.

"The police would have arrived, and maybe this wouldn't have happened," Chatterton said.

"But what if I had stopped him, and he gave the orders to somebody else?" Chatterton said. "It might have been more than 3,000 people dying."

"Creeped out" by neighbors

Maria Siscar is still not completely over her close encounter with some of the hijackers. Siscar lives in the Delray Racquet Club condo directly below the unit that had been rented to Saeed Alghamdi and Ahmed Alnami, two of the muscle hijackers aboard the United Airlines jetliner that crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

"I get creeped out still. When I come home, I still look up at that apartment," she said. "So I changed my parking spot just so I won't have to look up at it. I know they're dead and gone and can't bother me, but once I looked up and I thought I saw the shades move."

Siscar's most vivid memory of that summer is the time the future hijackers banged on her door, asking to come in.

They had dropped a shirt and a towel from their balcony onto the roof adjacent to Siscar's condo. They wanted to get to the roof by climbing out a window in the woman's unit. But she was afraid to let them in.

After 9/11, she told the FBI about it. Agents, she said, discovered evidence that the men eventually used a grappling hook to shimmy down from their apartment to retrieve the shirt and towel. Why was it so important?

"The FBI vacuumed the roof and found a piece of paper under a piece of tile," Siscar said. "It was part of a plane ticket."

The official record of what the hijackers did in South Florida is scant. Despite an intense investigation of their activities here, very little information has been made public. So even after 10 years, there's still nothing more than a disjointed collection of anecdotal snapshots from those who crossed their paths.

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