South Florida

Classmates recall Omar Mateen celebrating 9/11 carnage

Orlando shooter Omar Mateen is shown in a high school yearbook photo.
Orlando shooter Omar Mateen is shown in a high school yearbook photo.

At age 14, Omar Mateen seemed like a regular teenager. He chatted about school on the bus ride home and skateboarded in his neighborhood, former classmates recalled.

But when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Mateen’s behavior suddenly changed.

As students at Spectrum Junior/Senior High School in Stuart watched a plane crash into the second tower on live TV, Mateen stood up in class and claimed that Osama bin Laden was his uncle, said a former classmate, who spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his first name, Michael. Mateen bragged that “[Osama bin Laden] taught me how to shoot an AK-47,” Michael recalled.

The teacher and school police officer pulled Mateen out of class and called his family. When Mateen’s father arrived, he slapped Mateen across the face in view of the other students, according to Michael.

The Miami Herald could not independently verify Michael’s recollections with school officials, but another former classmate, who rode the bus home with Mateen, remembered a similar reaction to the terrorist attacks.

Mateen “started acting crazy” on the bus, extending his arms to mimic an airplane and making plane sounds, said Robert Zirkle, 29, the former classmate. “He would just act like he hit a wall, kind of lean forward and back and make an explosion sound or screaming sounds,” Zirkle recalled.

“We all flipped out at him. We told him if he kept doing it we were going to get into a fight.”

Zirkle attended Martin County High School, but rode the same bus as the students from Spectrum Junior/Senior High School, the alternative school Mateen was attending in September 2001.

Both Michael and Zirkle believe Mateen was expelled from Spectrum shortly after the incident.

At the time, both were surprised by Mateen’s behavior. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Mateen “seemed like a pretty cool guy,” Zirkle said. Michael recalled that Mateen had mentioned the Koran, but only in the context of his family’s religious beliefs. “He tried to get me to read the Koran and I told him, ‘No, I’m a Bible person,’ ” Michael recalled.

After seeing how Mateen reacted to the 9/11 attacks, however, neither was shocked to learn that Mateen was the shooter in Sunday’s attack.

“There were definitely signs,” Michael said.

Other former classmates reacted to the news on Facebook, some with surprise and others by recounting memories of Mateen.

“Omar also stood up in class during the 9/11 attack and after the second plane hit the building he started jumping up and down cheering on the terrorists,” one former classmate wrote.

The former dean of students at Martin County High School, the school Mateen attended during his freshman year, posted on Facebook that Mateen “was a regular in the dean’s office.”

“He had issues. All the records were discarded by the school system, per statute. Clearly, if his employer had access to his juvenile record, he would be the last person to own a weapon,” the former administrator, Marty Bielicki, wrote.

Bielicki did not respond to requests for comment from The Miami Herald.

Neither Zirkle nor Michael remembered Mateen making any homophobic comments that could explain his decision to target a gay nightclub.