By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Late one evening in August of 2001, Nancy Hanlon finished her shift as the cardiac ward secretary at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester and headed to C.J.'s, a downtown bar where she sometimes stopped for a drink after work. In a town whose civic identity is dominated by a paragon of straitlaced professionalism, the Mayo Clinic, C.J.'s has always stood out. A cavelike, beer-and-peanuts honky-tonk located two blocks from Mayo's front door, the club's walls are lined with bright-red Bud signs, dart-team trophies, and VFW plaques. Its patrons have long included an eclectic crowd of local office workers and farmers, clinic patients, and members of the dwindling tribe of Mayo doctors and support staff who steal away for a smoke.
During the 1990s, C.J.'s also played host to a more rarefied clientele: extremely wealthy visitors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries. It was this crowd of English-speaking, cognac-sipping, cosmopolitan Arab men that attracted Hanlon on those summer nights in 2001. The men were neither especially charming nor very warm, in her view, but they were nonetheless a source of intrigue in Rochester, where social life often oscillates between dead slow and perfectly moribund. They were smart, worldly, and ready for verbal sparring, especially on matters of sex and politics. The latter was the most uncomfortable subject of all. None of them liked America much, as it turned out.
Peering into their world was a welcome counterpoint to the workaday routine of her own life. As the single, 49-year-old mother of two young daughters, Hanlon kept very busy. Besides her job as a ward secretary at the hospital, she was studying for her nursing degree at a local community college. It was nice to be able to leave it all behind for an hour or two.
On the August night in question, Hanlon was actually hoping to run into one particular Middle Eastern man she had encountered the night before, an elegant and mysterious fellow named Khalid.
But Khalid wasn't there, so she took a seat at the bar next to a Saudi man of an entirely different sort. Young, disheveled--and utterly despondent.
"He was slumped over a glass of beer," Hanlon recalls. "He was wearing jeans and a khaki-colored plaid shirt right out of the Ward's catalog. I looked at him and said, 'Hi,' and he looked up at me. It was overwhelming--the despair that a person can give out! Out of every part of him. His face.
"I said, 'You look like you're carrying the whole world on your shoulders.' And he looked at me and said, 'I am. I am.'"
His name was Mohand, he said. He would not go into the details of his troubles, but they sounded bad. "Several times he told me to quit talking to him, because he was a dead man," Hanlon says. "'You are talking to a dead man,' he said. 'I don't exist. I'm a ghost. I'm not even here, I'm dead.' I thought he was going to kill himself, maybe even that night."
They talked for three hours. There was no piercing his fatalism, but the brooding man did brighten a few times when he talked to Hanlon about "this great big wonderful thing," in her words, that he claimed was forthcoming. "We are really going to show your country something," she says he told her. "Something big. It's going to be really big." She had no idea what he meant; he was clearly distraught, and she wasn't sure any of it meant anything. But each time, the spells of euphoria passed as quickly as they came and he would be morose.
Hanlon never saw him again, and after a few days she had little time or reason to think of him any further. The events of September 11 shocked her, but for whatever reason they never caused her to think of the young man Mohand--until a year later, when every television network was running nonstop documentaries and news reports dedicated to the 9/11 anniversary.
Even then, it was nothing she saw that prompted her to think of him. Rather, it was what she heard. The recycled words of the terrorists and radical clerics she heard sounded uncannily like the sentiments that Mohand and the other men at the bar had been expressing the summer before. Hanlon contacted the FBI. Soon she found herself sitting in the bureau's Rochester office looking at mug shots. Finally, there he was.
"I know him," Hanlon says she told Agent David Price. "I really know this guy. Where is he? What ever happened to him?"
"And Price said, 'Nancy, he was on the plane. The only good thing about him is that he is dead. He's one of the terrorists--one of the monsters.'"
The young man's name was Mohand Alshehri, she learned. He was 22 years old and part of the team of hijackers aboard United Flight 175 out of Boston, the second jet to crash into the World Trade Center complex.
Nancy Hanlon's story conjures a lot of questions, first among them the matter of its own credibility. The most glaring objection is the obvious one: Rochester? How plausible is it that a member of the 19-man terrorist cadre that carried out the 9/11 atrocities would be living in or visiting Rochester, Minnesota, only weeks before the attack?