Guantánamo

Mid-air irony: Son of 9/11 victim aids sick lawyer of alleged 9/11 plotter

Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center and flames and debris explode from the second tower, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center and flames and debris explode from the second tower, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. AP

When an attorney for the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks suddenly collapsed on a recent war court airplane shuttle, only one passenger was equipped to offer emergency care — a young man whose father was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He turned first responder without hesitation.

“I didn’t really do anything super impressive, just obtained vitals and tried to figure out what was going on, and gave oxygen,” said Tufts University senior Robert Mathai, 21, who checked the man’s pulse, talked to him and tended to him for about an hour before landing at Andrews Air Force Base and handing him off to an ambulance crew on Feb. 14.

That’s what first responders do — as they did that dark day in New York City when Mathai’s dad Joseph, a tech executive, died in the terror attacks among nearly 3,000 people, many of them first responders.

The attorney, Army Capt. Brian Nicholson, 33, is fine and back at work as part of the death-penalty defense team of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the man who once boasted that he was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks “from A to Z.”

Still the extraordinary inflight rescue sprung from the sorrow of Sept. 11, illustrates the close proximity of the different players in the on-again, off-again war court proceedings: How in just one week people who start off as strangers become familiar during their journeys to the crude compound called Camp Justice.

It had already been a surreal war court session.

A hearing was mostly derailed by the discovery that a contract linguist assigned to translate for an accused conspirator had previously worked at a CIA black site. It ended with the judge refusing to let defense teams depose the man on how he had come to work on the team.

Both the judge and linguist were traveling on the mostly full $80,000 charter, along with nearly everybody involved in the case except the accused terrorists — prosecutors, defense lawyers, reporters, clerks and the 9/11 victims’ families. Suddenly, someone put out a call for medical assistance over the 757’s speaker system.

The plane went silent. Passengers craned their necks to see the source of the emergency — some flight attendants and an Air Force colonel were anxiously standing over somebody up front.

Enter Mathai who was snoozing in his seat along side his mother, Teresa.

He was just 8 when his father died, and had become a volunteer EMT at Tufts, where he studies economics and philosophy. Before his trip to Guantánamo, he had handled a string of emergencies that, he said, “ran the gamut — falls, traumas, sick people.”

His mom woke him up.

He said to himself, “I got this if no one else was a doctor or anything.”

Mathai says he does not aspire to become a doctor. He called his training “just like a great skill to know.” He said he was probably drawn to it because of the loss of his father — who was attending a conference at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’m sure that’s part of it. I don’t consciously think about it that way but I’m sure that plays a role,” he said by telephone a week after the inflight rescue.

His mother, Teresa, has no doubt. “Robert’s a very compassionate man,” she said in a separate telephone interview. “This is one way for him to be able to help people. When something bad happens you don’t want to feel helpless. He was happy to be in the right place at the right time.”

The office of the Pentagon’s War Crimes Prosecutor has for years ferried 9/11 survivors and close kin of those killed to pretrial proceedings, usually seating them in first class. They are chosen from a lottery of volunteers willing to devote a week to the journey from the Washington, D.C., area.

Some have shunned or berated the accused conspirators’ attorneys, who are both civilian and U.S. military officers. Others have huddled in closed sessions to hear them out on why they defend the accused so zealously.

Nicholson, the officer Mathai treated, says he was “absolutely grateful that Robert was there,” describing the moment of realization at who was treating him as “nothing short of amazement.”

But on reflection, Mathai said the role of the lawyer at the war court made no difference. Helping a sick person in the medical profession is the same as defending a criminal in the legal profession. “You execute your jobs to the best of your training and ability.”

His mom agreed. “He’s just a lawyer doing his job, and Robert was doing his job,” she said.

Mohammed’s death-penalty defender, David Nevin, who leads the team that includes Nicholson, wrote Mathai a thank-you note.

If there’s any larger meaning to the episode, Nevin said in an interview, it’s that “what’s necessary for healing to occur is for people to see each other as people, as individuals.”

The first aid Mathai provided “was really healing for Brian, literally. But I’ll bet it was useful for Robert as well. At least I hope it was.”

Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter

Read about the Sept. 11 tribunal here.

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