‘I want to be the man I was before’

By Karen Feld

Special to the News

MICHAEL TOUHEY was the US Air gate agent who checked in the 9/11 terrorists in Portland. He recently spent time with his longtime friend, Karen Feld of Bridgton, and eplained how 9/11 had changed his life.

When I spoke to my long-time friend, Michael Touhey, he shared with me his trepidation about the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11.

“I want to be the man I was before 9/11,” he told me, “The man open to wonder and spontaneity.”

Until recently that jovial, sandy-haired man was only a memory of his former self to the post 9/11 Touhey. Now, he is a retired US Air ticket agent, whose unfortunate destiny led him to check in two of the terrorists — Mohammed Atta, the mastermind of the attacks, and Abdulaziz Al-Omari — in Portland, 10 years ago on the morning of 9/11.

“I’m doing well,” Touhey told me. “I landed on my feet.”

But it hasn’t been an easy journey for Touhey, now 65. He remembers well that morning in 2001.

For several years, Touhey blamed himself for not only the incidents, but also the suicide of Ana Zanni, the American Airlines agent in Boston, who checked in Atta on his connecting flight, AA #11. Touhey never met her, but chided himself for not giving Atta his connecting boarding pass in Portland. Fear consumed his life. He was unable to work and retired from the airline. He had intrusive symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations. He hesitated leaving his home and was always on high alert.

Touhey described himself as a normal guy who grew up in a large Irish-Italian, Catholic family in the mostly black projects of Roxbury, Mass.

“I was not brought up to be politically correct,” he said. “We used slang words for ethnic groups.”

He was drafted into the Army, which he calls “a great equalizer” and credits the military with preparing him for dealing with the public.

“It had a mellowing effect in terms of looking at the world,” he said.

At age 21, he found his niche working at Allegheny Airlines and then its successor, US Air, for 37 years, first in Boston and then Portland. His engaging personality and ability to deal with the public was one of Touhey’s assets. In fact, he viewed his role as providing service to the passengers. When the two terrorists checked in, only 17 minutes prior to departure time, they gave Touhey a difficult time because he wouldn’t issue a one-step boarding pass for a connecting flight on another airline. Touhey described himself as “a dinosaur in the business” since he didn’t believe in giving a connecting boarding pass for another airline in another city.

When he heard that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Touhey said, “I felt a feeling in my stomach like when someone you love deeply, leaves you.”

“I was afraid to leave my house after that day. I would make up excuses if I had to go out. I’d get dressed and then not leave. I’d think, ‘Are all the windows closed? Is the dishwasher turned off?’ I’d take an hour to check all these things. I made excuses not to go out. It was scary. I would go on-line to look up the shortest route even though I knew how to get to my destination,” he said.

But that wasn’t all. He recalled how he “would drift off and lose track of time, sometimes sitting in my parked car for 45 minutes after turning off the engine before going in the house. I would just stare out the window not realizing the time. It was like being in a time lapse,” Touhey said. “I was in the worst place I had ever been. My rational mind was telling me one thing, but my subconscious was telling me something else.”

Touhey also remembered being in a shower with the hot water running until it turned cold. “Little did I realize that I stood there staring at the wall long enough to use up a 65 gallon hot water tank,” Touhey said. “I thought it was five minutes.”

He felt even worse when his wife, Maureen, a US Air flight attendant, was flying.

“I felt safer when she was here,” he said.

He went to one psychologist after another seeking help.

“The first three were very sympathetic and listened. All agreed he suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but each admitted to him that it was more than he could deal with. All wanted to medicate him,” Touhey said. “I didn’t want to be ‘Prozac Mike.’”

Finally, he found a psychologist who told him he was “disassociating.” He disconnected from his surroundings and then snapped back with no concept of the length of time that had elapsed. This psychologist was able to help him, but “I had to embarrass US Air into covering the cost of the treatment for PTSD,” explained Touhey.

In addition to talk therapy, the psychologist used energy modalities including electrotherapy stimulation during which he placed electrodes on Touhey’s earlobes.

“I felt a small pulsed electric current,” he said.

This low level current is believed to increase brain levels of serotonin and dopamine while decreasing cortisol levels.

“I sat back, closed my eyes and thought about the morning of 9/11 while the psychologist controlled the electric current. It was as if I saw the whole thing in slow motion. I tried to bring myself back to that moment. It was almost like a high definition video camera. I could see it in slow motion. I was very emotional and crying,” he said. “What are you seeing now? What are you dealing with now?”

Then he asked me to think of something pleasant, something that makes me smile and laugh. That’s when I felt change. I felt like putty. It worked. The way I look at things changed. It took me from the worst place I’ve ever been to a more comfortable place. After a half dozen hourly sessions, Touhey says he feels “more relaxed and alert.”

“I was over-analyzing myself,” explained Touhey. “Now, I can just be.”

Looking back at the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Touhey recalled, “One of the men had a palpable contempt in his eyes and the other, a goofy smile. I got a visceral reaction, a gut reaction, but didn’t know where to go with that. I thought, ‘If these guys don’t look like Arab terrorists, who does?’” Then he added, “I mentally slapped myself, thinking, ‘I have to be politically correct.’ These guys paid big bucks, $2,400 in cash for first-class, one-way tickets connecting in Boston to Los Angeles. I thought, ‘I better treat ’em right.’ Little did I know I had the Devil standing right in front of me.”

He couldn’t do much since security regulations, which had been tightened to Level 3 after the bombing of the USS Cole six months before, had been loosened to Level 2.

“So, I couldn’t set them up for extra security as you could do with young Arab males prior to that time,” Touhey said.

However, he did put extra green tags on their checked bags. In accordance with the CAPS computer program, then in effect, that was a flag not to load the bags on the plane until the passenger had actually boarded.

Today, Touhey admits he’s grown less politically correct, more suspicious and pays more attention to his gut instinct.

“I’ve always hated political correctness. It grates on me,” he said. “There’s never a day that passes without thinking about that day. It’s just there. It’s in my blood, in my system. It’s like sky. It’s always there.”

But, he no longer feels responsible. He’s at peace with the knowledge that he couldn’t have done anything differently. He did call the FBI after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. His name — albeit misspelled — is marked in history in the first footnote of the 9/11 Commission’s official report.

Mike Touhey didn’t watch the 9/11 coverage on TV. He’s relived the events in his mind too many times. Instead, he sat by the lake and enjoyed a leisurely lunch with a glass of wine at my home in western Maine. He wants to acknowledge this somber day with valued friendship and the beauty of nature as he does most days when he tends to his garden adjacent to his home in Scarborough. He’s proud of his lettuce and tomatoes. . . and his recovery.

Karen Feld is a resident of Washington, D.C. and Bridgton. She is an award-winning journalist.

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