Agent Who Stopped '5th Hijacker' Visits Shanksville Memorial
PITTSBURGH (AP) - Jose Melendez-Perez says he was just doing his job when he prevented a Saudi man from entering the United States through Orlando International Airport in August 2001, a time when most Americans couldn't comprehend airplanes being used as missiles.
The man was later identified as Mohamed al-Kahtani, and investigators believe he was supposed to be the fifth hijacker aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
If Melendez-Perez, then an immigration inspector, had let the man through, might five hijackers have been one too many for the passengers to overcome? Instead of crashing in rural southwest Pennsylvania, would the hijackers aboard Flight 93 have made it to the White House or Capitol? U.S. officials have said that's a distinct possibility.
Last Friday, the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Melendez-Perez, 63, made his first visit to the field near Shanksville where Flight 93 crashed, a place many call the first battlefield in the war on terror.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered the keynote speech, joining former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and retired General Tommy R. Franks. At 10:03 a.m., the time the plane crashed, the names of the 40 passengers and crew were read and bells were tolled.
Melendez-Perez is the subject of a book titled "Instinct: The Man Who Stopped The 20th Hijacker'' by Philadelphia radio talk show host Michael Smerconish. The book comes out Friday and a portion of the proceeds will go toward the National Park Service's crash site memorial, which is slated to open on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Early last Friday, Melendez- Perez, Smerconish and scores of others boarded 12 buses to make the trip to Shanksville. Melendez Perez looked forward to the journey but expected it would be emotional.
"The more I try to think about it, the more sad I get,'' he said in a telephone interview last Wednesday from his Orlando home.
Smerconish had learned about Melendez-Perez by following the work of the 9/11 Commission. He believed that Melendez Perez wasn't being adequately recognized and holds him out as an example of the importance of being vigilant.
"He was salt-of-the-earth. Unassuming. Very serious about his responsibility,'' Smerconish said Thursday.
Several years ago, Smerconish interviewed Melendez-Perez on his radio program and brought him to Philadelphia, renting a ballroom to recognize him. Five hundred people showed up, including U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, DPa., who presented Melendez- Perez with a flag that had been flown over the Capitol. Brady told Melendez-Perez that his actions had arguably saved the congressman's life, Smerconish recalled.
"As far as thinking I'm somebody special for what I did, no sir, I don't consider myself a hero. I consider myself a hard worker,'' Melendez-Perez told The Associated Press.
The 9/ll Commission found U.S. authorities missed some obvious signs that might have prevented some hijackers from entering the country.
It was al-Kahtani's eyes that concerned Melendez-Perez.
Al-Kahtani had been sent to him because he hadn't filled out some paperwork, which was in English, and Al-Kahtani didn't speak it.
"When I went to get him in the waiting room, he gave me a very scary look, like a threatening look, like a challenging look,'' Melendez Perez recalled. "He just stared at me and moved that body like he was saying, 'I'm not afraid of you.'''
Other red flags popped up.
Al-Kahtani had no return ticket. He pointed at Melendez- Perez' face defiantly. He told Melendez Perez through an interpreter that he wasn't sure where he was going, but that he was meeting a friend who was making sightseeing arrangements. The friend was coming in several days and Al-Kahtani planned to stay for six days, he said. That didn't make sense, Melendez-Perez thought.
"I wasn't thinking terrorism. I was thinking hit-man,'' Melendez Perez said. "I had a gut feeling that he was coming to do some harm.''
Because Al-Kahtani's paperwork was otherwise in order, Melendez Perez checked with his superiors. Ultimately, they decided to have Al-Kahtani answer questions under oath. When he refused, he was put on a plane for home.
Eventually, Al-Kahtani was caught in Afghanistan. He is now being held at the Guantanamo prison.