They were the terrorists among us, the murderous technicians behind the most profound news story, so far, of the 21st century. Our very neighbors.
Their South Florida sojourn gave us this chilling connection to the audacious horrors in New York and Washington. In the months before 9/11, they had lived and slept and conspired in drab little houses, cheap apartments and aging hotels all through our ZIP Codes. The terrorists had addresses in Hollywood, Deerfield Beach, Coral Springs, Boynton Beach, Vero Beach and Delray Beach. In retrospect, they made our towns seem like postmarks from hell.
As Herald reporters investigated the disconcerting stay of Mohamed Atta and his fellow terrorists, their findings reinforced the vague feeling that so many, maybe too many, of the big news stories of our time had connections to our region. Watergate and Iran-Contra and the Kennedy assassination, the downfall of Gary Hart, Bush-Gore, the hanging chads.
And then this. Former Herald intern Catherine Carlson had watched in horror from her balcony in New Jersey as the second airliner struck, “with a dull thud,” she said, into the World Trade Center’s Tower 2 "ramming straight through the building to the other side like it was slicing a piece of paper." Then she watched, in even more horror, as the towers across the water imploded.
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But when I talked to Carlson four days later, something else was haunting her — those South Florida addresses.
"You know, in the back of my mind, I thought there might be some weird connection to South Florida, " Carlson said. "Every major national story, there’s always some South Florida wacko involved . . . "
South Florida, with its diverse and transient population, has long been a place where a stranger can disappear in plain sight. That must have appealed to the hijackers. Of course, we also had 18 airports and 35 flight schools between Jupiter and Hollywood. "I can’t describe the pain we feel," said flight instructor Henry George, who unwittingly trained Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi in a flight simulator for a Boeing jetliner at Opa-locka Airport.
All of us felt it. That strange painful connection to the 9/11 horrors. But it wasn’t quite a surprise. In that newsroom on Biscayne Bay, we shared our former intern’s instinct. In the back of our minds, we knew “there might be some weird connection to South Florida.”