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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Encounters with killers left torment in wake

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MIAMI -- On Sept. 7, 2001, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi pounded down drinks at Shuckums Oyster Bar in Hollywood, Fla.

They played video games, then argued with a waitress and a manager over a $48 tab.

Four days later, Atta and al-Shehhi flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people, and forever changing life for some in South Florida who unknowingly entered their orbit.

Like Tony Amos, the night manager who backed up waitress Patricia Idrissi at Shuckums (replaced in 2003 by Harpoon Harry's Raw Bar and Grill, it's now the Sauer Apple Saloon martini lounge).

Amos owns El Sloppy Taco in Brunswick, Md., and says that his brush with Sept. 11 infamy played into his decision, in 2007, just to get away. He left the job just a few weeks after Sept. 11.

By then, he'd been interviewed by the FBI several times on the phone or at a little deli about three shops down.

The evening of the disaster, agents came to the restaurant with photos of Atta and al-Shehhi. A third man drinking with them has never been identified.

"The area was really a dive then, so I figured they had written bad cheques or something," Amos said. "When they told me they were on the flight manifests, it was like someone punched me in the stomach."

When he heard of Osama bin Laden's death, it was more like a sense of relief for the country than for himself, said Amos, 41, now the father of a six-year-old son. "Finally there can be some emotional closure for a lot of people who were affected by it."

But probably not for him.

"I wish I'd never had the encounter to begin with," Amos said. "I've felt like survivor's guilt, like I should have said something when the (billing) altercation happened."

Nearby, the shabby, two-story apartment building where al-Shehhi stayed met the wrecking ball 15 months ago.

Where a 13-unit building once stood is now a construction site bounded by orange plastic fencing, with a three-metre-high dirt pile in the middle.

But the place Atta rented in Coral Springs remains as it was -- much to the dismay of some who still live there.

Atta rented Unit 122 at Tara Gardens, 10001 W. Atlantic Blvd. for $840 per month from a Canadian snowbird owner.

At the time, owners could rent their units out for a week or month. Now it's only by the year -- not because of Atta, but because owners wanted more stability.

Before Atta and al-Shehhi came to Broward, they trained for six months at Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Fla., 100 km south of Tampa.

Atta and al-Shehhi showed up in July 2000, wanting to become commercial, multi-engine pilots. Atta already had a private license.

"Less than 24 hours after the attack, federal investigators were on my doorstep," said Rudi Dekkers, who owned Huffman and Ambassador Airways.

Try as he might, Dekkers couldn't recover from the notoriety. Clients shunned him, a partner sued, he crashed a helicopter, had to sell his house, and the businesses went under. For six months after the attack, nobody bought fuel from his business, Dekkers said.

He now runs a cell phone store in Naples, Fla.

His book, Guilty By Association, a 200-plus-page hardcover due out in August from Brio Press of Minneapolis, will tell the story. It was already published in his native Dutch.

Dekkers said he was really thrilled that bin Laden died. "Normally you're not when someone is killed, but I wanted to tear him to pieces with my own hands. My first thought was: 10 years they were hunting him; now there are results, there's closure.

"My second thought was -- and I think about it every day -- he destroyed me, too."

He testified before Congress in March 2002 and was never suspected of wrongdoing, but the damage was done, said Dekkers. "The bank cancelled my note. My life in aviation was over... it's loud and clear guilt by association."

He's convinced that someone tried to kill him on Feb. 24, 2002, when the helicopter he was flying crashed into the Caloosahatchee River.

"The fuel lines were cut," said Dekkers, 54, who has been the object of much speculation on conspiracy-minded websites.

Whenever he talks about the hijackers, he gets goose bumps, Dekkers said. "I'm a victim too... but I didn't lose my life. The families suffer every day."

For Diane Surma, the events of Sept. 11 have barely faded.

She and her husband, Richard, own the Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach, where five hijackers stayed at various times during the summer of 2001: al-Shehhi, Fayez Ahmed, Satam al-Suqami, Waleed M. Alshehri, and Wail Alshehri.

On Sept. 10, Richard found aircraft manuals, videos, maps of the Eastern United States, an airplane fuel tester, books about Boeing 757s, karate books and a duffle bag in the trash. He kept some of it.

On Sept. 12, he found material related to Florida flight schools in his Dumpster, and called the federal authorities.

"The FBI brought me pictures," Diane said. "I recognized all of these guys."

She said they were about her son's age, quiet, polite, sober, and made their own beds.

Technically, Mohamed Atta remains a wanted man in Broward County.

On June 4, 2001, a Broward judge issued a bench warrant for Atta, who failed to show up for arraignment on a traffic ticket issued April 26.

Atta was behind the wheel of a red 1989 Pontiac when a BSO deputy stopped him in Tamarac. His criminal infraction: driving without a valid license.

The Clerk of the Courts can't clear the case without a death certificate.

"So I guess this will stay open until the end of time," said Clerk Howard Forman.

 

-- The Miami Herald.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2011 J4

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