First, this disclosure before I go on about the media circus that set up its big tent around anyone involved with the terrorists or their actions: I was right there selling peanuts. In my capacity as a freelance journalist for National Magazine X, I visited and spoke with people who had met two of the men suspected of flying into the World Trade Center. I camped out on their doorsteps and I called them at odd hours, probably disturbing their dinner. And I'm not sorry. I'm a journalist and that's what we do.
One of my assignments was to join in the media mob that was talking to Huffman Aviation School owner Rudi Dekkers. At about 2:30 a.m. on the Wednesday after the attacks, the FBI confiscated Dekkers' student files from his office. They were interested in two men in particular: Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi.
To give some context for just how much media attention Dekkers got in those initial days of the investigation there's this: A Lexis Nexis (online news archive) search of the major news publications comes up with 76 hits on Dekkers' name. This does not include his appearances on most major network news programs, radio shows, and news outlets that don't have articles archived on Lexis Nexis. He did a lot of talking.
Would it be reasonable to expect Dekkers to give the same information to every news outlet? Perhaps. But that was not the case. On Wednesday, he told some reporters, including me, that his interaction with the two suspects came from a couple of brief conversations when he passed them in the halls. His employees had dealt with their enrollment. By Sunday's reports, Dekkers served up anecdotes about the two men, telling a reporter, "He sat right there last year when he came to talk to me about taking lessons here."
Maybe he was misquoted. Maybe he really was beginning to remember things about the suspect that he didn't recall before. Or maybe the incessant media coverage and the pressure of being the center of such attention shaped his story a lot more than his brain ever could, said USF gerontology professor Cathy McEvoy. She lectures about memory in her classroom and cautions students that recall can be tricky.
"Most people don't remember a whole lot of details about people that we meet in passing," she said. We just don't pay that much attention unless the interaction itself was extraordinary. When Dekkers bumped into Atta and Al-Shehhi, they were just ordinary students to him. But finding out extraordinary information about them later could have reshaped his recollections, said McEvoy. Learning that his two students were suspected terrorists may have caused Dekkers to view his rather benign interactions with them as something more ominous.
Another factor that can affect memory is stress, said McEvoy. And there's nothing like the pressure of morphing from a small town businessman into a highly sought-after interview subject.
When I arrived at the flight school, the parking lot was packed with news trucks from all the major networks. Reporters from all the big newspapers and magazines were hanging out in his lobby. Some were watching the story unfold on the TV in the reception area; others were standing outside smoking and trying to chat up employees.
Before I could get an audience with Dekkers, the receptionist needed to know which media outlet I was with. I got the distinct impression that the prominence of the publication dictated how long I'd have to wait. With Peter Jennings' people on the phone and reporters from The New York Times and the Washington Post skulking around, I was just one of the crowd. I spent the down time trying to find out what the other skulkers knew that I didn't (nothing) and finding out if any employees knew the two men (they didn't).
Then the man of the hour emerged. Dekkers, 45, speaks with a clipped Dutch accent and a tone that suggests he's used to barking out orders. When he was informed that yet more reporters were waiting to speak to him, he plucked a small group of us from the waiting area and led us to a gazebo outside, saying he'd be right out. We gave him about five minutes before going back in after him. He was inside giving a phone interview. One of his staffers set up a press conference in what looked like a classroom.
Reporters rolled their eyes at the idea that this man was holding a news conference. Someone called him a media hound for not blowing off any interview requests. He was being ridiculed for giving us what we wanted and having the temerity to make us wait.
When Dekkers finally appeared, this is what he said: He didn't know the suspects. He wasn't the one who took their money so he was unsure how they'd paid. He didn't see their passports so he wasn't sure where they were from. He denied having had many interactions with them at all.
A reporter from The New York Times asked Dekkers about reports that the two men were from Germany. It was more of a challenge than a question, "Didn't it strike you as odd that they were from Germany? They didn't look German, did they?"
The reporter's implication: Dekkers should have somehow been tipped off that his students were actually international terrorists, even though the FBI and INS hadn't suspected a thing when the men entered the country.
This inference might've motivated Dekkers to talk, but when the blame game started, he would have none of it. "Don't tell me what people tell you," he barked, "I have never heard that they're from Germany. I have never heard that they speak German."
Another reporter asked if it was true that the passports the students presented were from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Dekkers defended his right to have no idea where his students came from. His employees took the students' identification and made copies for their files, even though this was not something that flight schools are required to do, he said. Since the FBI had taken his files, he couldn't even go and look up the information. He didn't know any more than we did. "I have heard Nairobi, Arabic. ..." He started to list the rumors he'd heard.
A reporter cut him off, saying, "You don't know."
We moved on. Asked about what kind of students the two men were, Dekkers said they were normal, "hardworking." He got this information from an unnamed employee who was nowhere to be found in the building. All of the reporters instantly wanted to speak to that person, pressing Dekkers for the staffer's name and whereabouts. Dekkers couldn't recall the name. Apparently his small school, with no more than 300 students per year, has the employee turnover of a McDonald's -- they come and go so quickly that he can't remember their names. Or maybe he was protecting their privacy. Who knows? Whatever the case, we wanted concrete details and were stuck with Mr. Hearsay. The disappointment was palpable.
Maybe our collective disappointment was what caused Dekkers to recall the details he gave me the next day. Interview subjects tend to want to be helpful to the interviewer, McEvoy said, so they reach a little. Whereas on Wednesday Dekkers didn't recall where the suspects were from, on Thursday he thought he recalled something about Afghanistan. Whereas on Wednesday he'd blasted a reporter for asking about a German connection, on Thursday he told me an anecdote about one of the suspects saying he was German. Dekkers wasn't just remembering new details; he was learning how to tell a story.
That doesn't mean that he was lying. When people remember a little bit of information about something someone said or how they looked, they tend to fill in the gaps of what they don't remember with something that makes sense, said McEvoy. In the end, it can be impossible to differentiate between what is true memory and what just seems like it.
Dekkers wasn't the only person whose story seemed to evolve. Charlie Voss, Dekkers' former bookkeeper who had briefly put the suspects up in his home, told me something different than he had told other media. It was widely reported that Voss and his wife had rented the two men a room but had evicted them because they found them to be so unlikable. Voss' wife, Dru, was quoted as saying that the two men were messy, that they shook their wet hair like dogs when they got out of the shower.
When I talked to Charlie Voss, he claimed that he had never rented the men a room; he'd only offered them a place to stay for a few days while they looked for something more permanent. He couldn't have evicted them, he said, because they were never his tenants. He simply told them they'd been there long enough and that they should move on as previously agreed. He did say that the two men were disrespectful, just as his wife had told others, but he also gave a clue that the disrespectful behavior might have been colored more by his perceptions than by the suspects' actions. "I understand that's generally the behavior of Middle Eastern males," he said.
His prejudice about how certain ethnic groups act could have informed his memories of the two suspects. Saying that he never rented them a room could have been a way of distancing himself from the notion that he had helped two alleged terrorists.
At the end of the day, witness news coverage has its value. Brad Warrick, owner of Warrick's Rent-A-Car in Pompano Beach, which rented cars to Atta on three occasions, feels that talking to the media can be a public service. He realized his association with the terrorists after seeing a photo of Atta on the news several times. His recognition of Atta and subsequent call to the FBI produced credit card receipts signed by the suspects as well as handwriting samples and a rental car that could produce fingerprints and DNA.
Warrick said the attention has been overwhelming. On the day I spoke with him he was waiting to speak to Bryant Gumbel before moving on to a prime-time interview. He was keeping his story on track by taking notes on the interviews he gave -- and by sticking to his story.
"The story is all there is to tell," he said. "I mean, you guys don't want my opinion on terrorists and crime and politics and all that."
The bottom line for news junkies: It's OK to read these accounts of brushes with ominous people with interest and some fascination, McEvoy said. Just be careful not to allow their accounts to inform your worldview. At best, such reports can add a little color to the actual facts that are rapidly emerging about the terrorist attacks. At worst, they can do damage by allowing people to believe that the stereotypes surrounding a particular culture are suddenly being confirmed and validated.
Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or at rochelle.renford@ weeklyplanet.com.