Two Good-News Stories to Remember on 9/11

Honor Jose Melendez-Perez, an Orlando Customs Agent, and 10,000 Residents of Gander, New Foundland

Most of us are reliving, remembering, and honoring the memories and people of this tragic day 20 years ago. We remember the anger and resolve, along with the sadness of losing friends and family. And the weather here, today, just 4 miles from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia is eerily reminiscent of that fateful day.

We know that four commercial aircraft were hijacked and deliberately crashed into three buildings, the fourth into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles from Pittsburgh. Three of the aircraft each had 5 hijackers; United Flight 93, the one that crashed near Shanksville, only had four.

Many believe that the absence of a fifth hijacker helped the 44 passengers, including Todd Beamer, overwhelm the attackers and prevent the plane from reaching its likely target - the US Capitol building.

Jose Melendez-Perez is likely responsible for keeping Saudi national Mohammed al-Qhatani from his appointment that day with Mohammed Atta at Orlando’s International Airport. Atta was one of the other hijackers. Qhatani, now residing at Naval Base Guantanamo in Cuba since his capture in Afghanistan some 3 months later at the Battle of Tora Bora, was to be the 20th hijacker.

Melendez-Perez’s story:

Twenty years ago, weeks before the 9/11 attacks, on Aug. 4, 2001, Melendez-Perez was working as an immigration inspector at the Orlando International Airport conducting secondary screenings.

That day would have been otherwise uneventful, except on that day, Melendez-Perez met a man he says gave him ‘the chills.’

“The first thing that came to me was that he was a hitman,” Melendez-Perez said.

“He was well dressed, in all black, with a military haircut. He kept looking into my eyes with his little, black devil eyes. I thought, ‘something is not right,’” Melendez-Perez said. “But I did not know what it was, because his passport is good, his visa was good.”

The man was a Saudi national who had not properly filled out his customs paperwork and claimed to not speak English, so, per protocol, he was sent to secondary screening for an interview with Melendez-Perez.

“This guy was staring at me giving me this dirty look, and I say, ‘something is not right with this individual,” Melendez-Perez said. “The first question I asked was, ‘Why don’t you have a return ticket?’

By law, you were supposed to have a return ticket.

“A friend of mine is coming, and he will take care of it,” the man told Melendez-Perez.

“And how long have you known this person,” Melendez-Perez asked the man.

The man told him a week.

“‘You have known this person for a week, and he wants to buy you a $1,800 ticket?’ That did not make any sense. That was the first flag,” Melendez-Perez said.

Investigators now know that Melendez-Perez was questioning Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi national who was later identified as the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks.

Gander, New Foundland

When commercial aircraft were cleared from the skies in response to the attacks, some 39 “heavy” aircraft were winging to the United States from across the Atlantic Ocean. They were diverted to the nearest international airport in North America - Gander, New Foundland, home to about 10,000 people.

They suddenly had 7,000 visitors. Gander’s population nearly doubled.

Gander’s airport has an interesting history. Construction began in 1936. When the first aircraft landed there in early 1938, it was the world’s largest airport. With the outbreak of WWII, Gander soon became a major military airfield that would launch some 20,000 North American-made aircraft to the European theater. With the advent of jet aircraft in the 1960s, Gander’s use began to decline.

But it is still valuable. On a return trip from Italy to Philadelphia in 2016, a bad oxygen tank in the cockpit forced my plane to make a repair stop in Gander. The airport was mostly closed that evening, but locals quickly arrived to open up the restaurant to serve a couple of hundred passengers. It’s a large airport and easily accommodated us. While we waited for a substitute airplane and crew to make their way from Boston, we all remembered Gander’s significance on September 11th, 2001.

Tom Brokaw and NBC recorded a 6-minute tribute to Gander during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver that wonderfully captured the events and spirit of that day.

If you watch anything today, make it this.

No one (except jihadi terrorists) wants to repeat the events of that day. But often, such tragedies also bring out the best in us. Both Jose Melendez-Perez and the wonderful people of Gander, New Foundland, are but two examples worth remembering and honoring this day.