PORTLAND, Maine — Even twenty years later, the morning of September 11, 2001, remains fresh in Michael Tuohey's mind.
The former U.S. Airways employee was working the opening shift at the ticket counter at the Portland International Jetport.
"It was the perfect morning," Michael Tuohey said. "The air was crystal clear and just cool. There was a snap in the air. It was just wonderful."
That morning, Tuohey decided to take advantage of the lull at the airport and step outside for a cigarette. He quickly noticed two men who appeared to be lost and asked them where they were headed. They were headed for Boston. Tuohey returned to his post and began to check the pair in for their flight, asking them a series of security questions and for their IDs.
"The younger guy, his name was Abdul Aziz al Omari, he held his I-D up and gave this great big smile," Tuohey said. "The other guy, Atta, he just looked at you from the side, he was never looking directly at you it would be from the side with a smirk on his face and he threw his driver’s license upon the counter, and I thought okay, his face, it looks like a bottle of poison."
The two would be flying first class to Los Angeles by way of Boston. All seemed well until Atta noticed they would have to check-in for their connecting flight once arriving at Logan International Airport.
"He's just tensely looking at me, he says 'they told me one-step check-in. I'm thinking 'oh boy, I don't want to get into a confrontation with this guy; he's a miserable-looking person." Tuohey said.
"So, I said let me try this – 'Mr. Atta, your flight is leaving very shortly if you don't get upstairs real quick, you're going to miss your flight altogether; check-in with American Airlines in Boston'," Tuohey said. "I think that part about you're going to miss your flight altogether made him turn around and get upstairs."
Tuohey says he saw the men one more time before they officially boarded their flight. He remembers wondering why the well-dressed pair had ditched their sport coats and ties after getting through security. Then, he says, the morning continued as usual. That was until Tuohey bumped into another airline agent a couple of hours later.
She let him know a commercial airliner had flown straight into the World Trade Center in New York City, striking one of the iconic 'Twin Towers'. Just as he was walking into the break room, Tuohey recalls seeing a second plane fly straight into the buildings, this time hitting the South Tower.
Terrorism had hit American soil.
19 militants, who we now know all belonged to the Muslim militant group al-Qaida, hijacked four separate commercial flights headed for California.
Two planes would hit the World Trade Center in New York City. One would hit the Pentagon in our nation’s capital. The last would land in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Thousands of people were killed in the attacks.
As more and more information got released, Tuohey came to a gut-wrenching conclusion; two of the hijackers began their trip in Portland, Maine. Tuohey had met them a few hours earlier.
"It didn't register right away, but a girl I was working with says 'hey Tuohey, didn't you check in two guys on that flight?'," Tuohey said. "I stopped, and I thought about it... my initial reaction is 'jeez', I feel so bad for these guys and then it hit me."
It hit him that it was Atta and Al Omari, maybe they had hijacked Flight 11. Tuohey says the news hit him like a ton of bricks. His boss gave him the next few days off, Tuohey spent most of that time being interviewed by the FBI.
Finding comfort seemed impossible so, he did what any of us would do – he picked up the phone and called his Mom.
"She says to me 'why are you crying?' and I told her what happened; and she says, 'what does that got to do with you?' Now, mind you she's 90 years old, and she says 'I'll be right up' and I says 'how are you going to do that?' and she says 'don't worry about that, I'll figure it out'," Tuohey said. "Well, sure enough, she called my youngest brother had him pick her up and she drove up to Maine."
"To have your mother wrap her arms, little, tiny woman, wrap her arms around you and say it's not your fault – it didn't take everything away but it's your mother, if she says it's okay, it must be okay." Tuohey continued.
However, the magnitude of thousands of Americans dying such brutal deaths in the World Trade Center attacks would haunt him. It would take years and four different psychologists to help Tuohey work through the deepening pain.
"I carried around a lot of guilt. 'How could this happen?' 'What did I miss?' 'How come I didn't stop them' all like that," Tuohey said. "I found out that talking about it was very good, it let it out there."
Two decades after the attacks, Tuohey finds comfort at his home in Maine with his wife, Maureen, and their dog, Bailey. His days are much brighter now, but he would be the first to tell you the pain from that day never really goes away, he's just learned over time to manage it.
"I don't dwell on it, you can't dwell on it or you'll go crazy," Tuohey said, "I got a lot of counseling, I had a good ma, I had good friends, I've had a pretty exciting life in the last 20 years, and I hope we never have to go through something like that again."
You can hear from Tuohey and others in NEWS CENTER Maine's '9/11: Maine Remembers'.