National

How the 9/11 terrorists spun a web of lies in Florida

Richard Surma sits outside the room rented by two of the Sept. 11 terrorists in his Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach.
Richard Surma sits outside the room rented by two of the Sept. 11 terrorists in his Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach. Miami Herald File/2002

This account, republished here as the U.S. prepares to mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11, was first printed in the Miami Herald in September 2002, a year after the terror attacks.

The day after the two Arab men checked out of The Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach, Richard Surma found some curious items in the trash from Room 12: a black tote bag, Boeing 757 manuals, flight maps, a martial arts book, an English-German dictionary. And, in a drawer, a box cutter. It was Monday morning, Sept. 10. Late summer is typically high season for Middle Eastern travelers and the motel owner thought little of the discovery.

A year later, it's impossible to forget.

In New York City and Washington, D.C., and outside a small Pennsylvania town, they praise heroes, comfort survivors and mourn some 3,000 dead to mark Sept. 11.

In Florida, there is no hallowed ground to gather around, only a snaking trail of deceit leading to the worst terrorist attack in American history.

The emotional aftermath is messy, particularly complicated for the few who crossed paths with the infamous. They want to move on. Some say little good comes of looking back. But for many, burying something so big will never be easy.

Surma struggles to connect those clean-cut human faces from his motel with the monstrous acts of the next day.

He saw no murder in the eyes of Marwan al-Shehhi, who flew a jet into the south tower of the World Trade Center. He heard no hate in his voice.

Surma has mulled it over and over and has come to consider the men who spent two weeks at his motel as misguided pawns.

"Them committing suicide was an old man's idea, " he said. "It's the same mentality that Japan had during World War II. They brainwash the young people so the old cowards can get their way."

BEWILDERED

Arne Kruithof, who trained Ziad Jarrah at his Venice flying school, remained bewildered by the enigma of the easy-going young man he knew and the fanatic in the pilot's seat when a jet slammed upside down into a field in Stony Creek Township in Pennsylvania.

"We're not robots. The brain is a complicated thing and I'm sure we all have gone through different emotions, " Kruithof said. Then he paused.

Jarrah "was a super kid actually. He was almost a role model as a student. That's the sick thing about it."

As many as 14 of the 19 terrorists spent time in South Florida, floating from Venice to Hollywood to Delray Beach and points in between.

Yet after the most intense investigation in national history, only three suspected ringleaders — grim Mohamed Atta, pudgy al-Shehhi and affable Jarrah — have taken any shape.

Authorities may know more but to the public, most of the men are a collection of mug shots, paper ghosts recalled mainly by signatures on gym cards, apartment leases and motel ledgers - places where faces change by the month.

In an America one year wiser, it no longer surprises that cunning zealots would choose Florida, the revolving fun-house of Mickey, Elián and chad. Who would ever notice? No one did.

That perspective has provided some solace to those who unwittingly provided them shelter or services. But lingering feelings of being duped, being used, simply looking into the eyes of men responsible for such a slaughter have left marks, emotional and financial.

"It just drives me insane to think of what happened to all these people, this tremendous tragedy, " Charles Lisa said. "It's something I will have to live with the rest of my life."

Lisa did nothing but rent an apartment in a small complex he and his wife own in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea to a young student pilot named Jarrah.

"He told me everything about his father, where he lives, about how his father was happy with his training, " Lisa said.

Like some others, Lisa has battled bouts of guilt. He feels he should have picked up on something, done something.

And yet, "I just can't believe this kid would do something like that, " he said.

The passengers aboard Flight 93 have been hailed as national heroes, but Lisa has sometimes wondered: Could this kid he sheltered have had a change of heart?

"The way the plane went down . . . straight down like he was shooting an arrow, " Lisa said. "He could have gone into a town."

Lisa also knows Jarrah could have been killed by people who died to keep him from destroying hundreds more innocent lives.

Jarrah also stayed at Rina Bernard's small cottage with gray clapboard siding on Harding Street in Hollywood. She hardly ever saw the quiet man.

Yet today she remains rattled, near-panicked when flying, suspicious.

Bernard's ex-husband visited ground zero and brought back an image blending The Statue of Liberty, firefighters and tower rubble. It's posted in the office and meant to be inspirational. Bernard prefers not to look.

"I feel like this has taken something away from us. Today, we have fear. It will never be the same, " she said. "So many millions in the U.S.A. Why does someone have to be so close to me?"

At The Panther Motel, among the terrorists' last known haunts, guests are slowly coming back. The curious with cameras slowly dwindle.

Owner Surma doesn't want to talk about it again, but he does. He was appalled by the terrorists under his roof, eager to help investigators.

But some things that have happened since have made him think hard about his adopted, beloved country. Surma came from Poland more than 50 years ago, and he has been troubled by the venom directed at immigrants, the fear of things and people foreign.

He recites a list of native evil-doers: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, Waco's David Koresh and cult leader Jim Jones.

"Our own terrorists did a number on us, too, not the Taliban but the Enrons. Even Martha Stewart. You can't trust anyone who comes from that world."

Ultimately, Surma has returned to what bought him The Panther, his third motel, two years ago. Hard work. "Arabs will be coming soon, smoking their water pipes because it's the season for them. The South Americans will be here soon, " Surma said. "I went back about my businesses."

VISITING THE AIRFIELD

Even the rural isolation of Belle Glade, bordered by Palm Beach County's vast sugar fields and Lake Okeechobee, was not left untouched.

Atta and other men visited a small airstrip where South Florida Crop Care keeps a trailer and a blue and yellow 502 Air Tractor crop-duster. They peppered owner J.D. "Will" Lee and his employees with questions: Is it hard to fly? How much can it hold?

At 63, with 40-plus years of flying under his belt, Lee's damn near unflappable.

This thing, though, has changed the way he sees his hometown, the way he moves through it. He now finds himself giving every stranger, every car in parking lots a hard look-over.

"There's not much around me that I don't notice now, " Lee said. "I'm angry they were able to take advantage of good people, just like myself. If I'd taken more time to talk to them, if I'd picked up on something. . . . Ordinary people just don't ask questions they were asking."

Others try not to dwell on their unwanted role in an epic tragedy, unless asked.

For Henry George, owner of SimCenter in a small office in the dark cavern of Opa-locka Airport's hangar 101, it was tough for a time.

George took Atta and al-Shehhi through six hours in the cockpit of a Boeing 727 simulator, a machine similar to the 767s they would turn into weapons nine months later.

At first, George felt guilty about being used. But the former Eastern Airlines pilot talked to friends and got supportive calls and e-mails from all over the world. Only three negative ones in the bunch.

"At the end of the day, I realized I'm no more responsible for this than the guy who designed the box cutters, " George said.

Bert Rodriguez, a martial arts expert who taught Jarrah self-defense at his Dania Beach gym, sports his philosophy on his jewelry - a yin and yang medallion dangling on his chiseled chest. Everything, he says, has a dark and light side.

"I base my thoughts on Zen, which has outlived millions of governments, millions of wars, " he said. "In this case, I taught someone who did something on the dark side. Maybe I'll teach someone on the positive side next time."

Brad Warrick has managed to roll on as smoothly as the cars he rented Atta and al-Shehhi - a 1997 blue Chevy Corsica and a white Ford Escort, returned two days before the attack.

His Pompano Beach rental business took a hit. Traffic dipped for months and media - from Japanese networks to the Auto Rental News (Headline: Helping the FBI piece together the terrorist conspiracy) - became a full-time job he handled with patience and humor.

He rejected offers to trade on the notoriety of the cars, selling them to an auction house for near-blue book value. The cars remain in a warehouse awaiting some bid for what the broker calls a "respectful" display.

"I didn't want customers worrying about whether they were driving a terrorist's car, " Warrick said.

His life did change in one big way in the aftermath of tragedy: He married longtime girlfriend, Faith. "With all the crazy things going on, we decided to just do it."

IN THE LIMELIGHT

Rudi Dekkers also found romance - with the limelight.

The owner of Huffman Aviation in Venice, where Atta and al-Shehhi first honed their flying skills, has undeniably emerged as a celebrity of sorts, a glib and willing quote.

He's in such media demand that he will spend all of Sept. 11 in a satellite truck to provide live feeds to satisfy countless interview requests.

"The camera loves me, " said Dekkers, who freely admits the feeling is mutual.

In the first outraged days after the attack, critics questioned Dekkers' oversight. Dekkers shot back, pointing his finger at lax national border security and visa systems. His points were underlined in March when he opened his mail and found two approved visa applications from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for Atta and al-Shehhi.

Still, Dekkers finds himself fighting to hold on to his aviation business. He said he has lost $400,000 since Sept. 11. Fuel and repair work has perked up in the past six months, but his students, mostly foreign, have all but disappeared.

He was forced to close a second school in Naples. A business partner is suing him, claiming he's in default on a series of loans, including one for $1.7 million. An Internet site has cranked out a series of tales linking him and fellow Dutchman and flying school operator Kruithof to the mob and other dubious enterprises.

A brash, gregarious man who buzzes with energy, Dekkers brushes such troubles aside.

"This tragedy, this was a hit to our soul, " he said. "It's an unbelievable attack, but we need to be rational. What do I mean by that? We've got 10,000 people killed in traffic each year. We need to move on."

He knows it sounds harsh. Was it that easy for him, was there no emotional toll on him?

"I'm telling you flat-out - no, " Dekkers said. Besides getting angry, "I realized the only thing I did after this was lose 40 pounds. I looked like a pig on television."

Just a few hangars down at Florida Flight Training Center, Kruithof has suffered a similar business hit.

Unlike Dekkers, Kruithof finds nothing fulfilling about discussing his private problems or the enigma of his own terrorist student, Jarrah. He's as repelled by the cameras as Dekker is drawn to them.

Kruithof, too, wants to move on. But, opposed to violence of any kind, he wonders when the cycle that began on Sept. 11 will stop. A year after, he has more questions than answers.

"One of the first things I teach my students is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, " he said. "There are a lot of people still losing their lives. There is always the next victim."

Herald staff writers Michael Ottey and Larry Lebowitz contributed to this report.

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