When Toris Proctor peeked inside Room 343 of the Valencia Motel, he hadn't a clue his neighbors were among those suspected of plotting the worst act of terrorism ever to befall America.
But the five crisply dressed, clean-shaven young men, who never went anywhere without their luggage in hand, seemed out of place in the dingy one-bedroom unit next door. Something about them worried Proctor, so he made sure his 4-year-old nephew steered clear.
"We thought it was suspicious that they had the same routine every day," Proctor said last week. "I didn't ever think it was anything like this."
In suburban neighborhoods from San Diego to Phoenix and oceanfront apartments from Delray Beach to Hollywood, Fla., the 19 hijackers blended into the multicultural tapestry that is America. Sometimes they did so seamlessly, sometimes not.
The FBI believes some of the identities hijackers used were false, further complicating the puzzle of men who listed multiple addresses where they never lived, and who may have changed the spellings of their names as often as they moved.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, it is the audacity of the hijackers who lived, studied and traveled so publicly in America that leaves some of their former neighbors feeling shaken and betrayed.
Out of the way
In Laurel, the men drew attention, but their peculiarity seemed less than sinister.
At the Valencia Motel, Room 343 sits at the back of the complex on Washington Boulevard in the Maryland suburb. It overlooks an access road, the rear of a handful of commercial lots and the Laurel horse racing track in the distance.
"This is an out-of-the-way place. It's low budget or whatever," said Proctor, an unemployed 22-year-old who spends his days watching the comings and goings of the motel complex from Room 342. In their dress and daily routine, the five men appeared to be middle-class people with daily commitments. Here, that was rare.
As his suspicions grew, Proctor said he began to pay more attention. He'd peek inside the door whenever the men opened it. Inside, he saw bedding spread out on the living room floor, as if they were all sleeping in the front room.
Beyond the small living room, the men shared a cramped eating area, a galley kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. The dirty carpet emitted a strong, musty smell. The walls were covered with peeling, faded floral wallpaper.
Each morning at 10, the five stepped out of their room and walked toward a blue Toyota Corolla parked out front.
Three men climbed inside the car and waited. Two others walked across the bustling Washington Boulevard to a restaurant called Pizza Time, where they spent a few minutes each morning before the restaurant was open. The men returned to the group, and they drove away for the day.
As they passed through the region, whether at a nearby health club, an adult video store or a flying school, they identified themselves as Khalid Al-Midhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaq Alhamzi, Salem Alhamzi and Hani Hanjour.
To the people at the Valencia or Gold's Gym or elsewhere, the notion remains unfathomable that the men would drive to Dulles International Airport on Sept. 11 and board American Airlines Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles, hijack the plane and dive into the Pentagon.
Hours after the terrorist attack in New York and the Washington area, the FBI dispatched agents to neighborhoods in South Florida cities including Opa-locka and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
It was inside the stucco mom-and-pop motel rooms where most of the 19 hijacking suspects once lived and it was inside nearby flight schools where they learned to pilot jets.
Where getting lost is easy
Since the attacks, the trail has taken hundreds of agents to flight schools and bars and public libraries from Florida's Atlantic coast to its gulf coast. Along the way, a string of tales has developed about how the suspects lived in a state where getting lost or hiding out is easy.
But taken individually, long before the attacks, the men hardly seemed extraordinary.
One looked like Clark Kent, a bespectacled young man who took defense classes.
Another, a nice-looking man who spoke German with ease, impressed a motel owner with his tidiness. Clothes were neatly hung in the closet or folded in his suitcase. Before checking out, he even took time to ring the owner's doorbell to say he appreciated the hospitality.
They rented cars. They used computers at public libraries. They wore jeans, khakis and T-shirts. Some of the men spoke limited English, but that hardly raised suspicions here.
"They were . . . pretending to be human beings," said Henry George, who sat shoulder-to-shoulder with two hijackers he taught to fly commercial jets.
Their lives went unnoticed at the time, but the people they came in contact with say the men were good at following patterns.
They rarely strayed from one another. They switched cars regularly. They moved around every few weeks or months.
At the Bimini Motel Apartments in Hollywood, Waleed Alshehri and a friend selected a one-bedroom apartment--No. 8--on the second floor. They arrived April 28 and stayed four weeks. For $650, the men got a bed, a daybed and a kitchen.
"Nothing fancy," said Joanne Solic, the owner of the motel that sits along State Road A1A. "They were really polite--they would smile and say thank you. They were very nice, very quiet."
She thought nothing more of them until FBI agents and Hollywood police turned up in her office at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 11. Alshehri, it seemed, had used the Bimini as his address on his Florida driver's license.
That night, authorities soon made their way a few miles north to the Homing Inn, a three-story stucco motel in Boynton Beach where an American flag waves in the driveway.
Two other hijackers, Satam Al Suqami and Wail Alshehri, had listed the Homing Inn as their address on their state identification cards.
Plotting began early
It's not known when exactly the men started to plot the hijacking schemes. Most had bought their flight tickets by Aug. 25, but authorities believe that by then the plan was well under way.
As early as summer 2000, when Florida was consumed by presidential politics, the men were honing their aviation skills in classrooms, on Cessna 152s and in flight simulators.
On Dec. 29, two men who called themselves Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi walked into SimCenter Inc., a flight school in Opa-locka, Fla. For three hours that night and three hours the next, George, the school's owner, taught the two men how to steer, turn and run the controls of a passenger jet.
Atta and Al-Shehhi traveled from Germany to America. Their destinations aren't as clear in the U.S., except a stop last summer in Norman, Okla., where they spent a night in the Airman Flight School dorms after touring the facilities.
But the men, authorities now know, chose flight schools in Florida. Slowly other suspected hijackers started to arrive.
Some of the men rented rooms from area families for $17 a night, while others stayed in higher-rent communities.
Authorities are working to stitch together a detailed log of the group's travels, but the picture is far from complete. New destinations emerge by the day.
From a 175-unit apartment building in San Diego to a Boston motel to a suburban New Jersey neighborhood, more than 4,000 FBI agents are trying to figure out how the men moved into their posts at airports in Boston, Newark and Washington, where the hijacked planes originated on Sept. 11.
Last week, the trail led to Laurel, where the terrorist teams appeared to intersect in the days before the attack.
At least one spot where the paths may have crossed is a motel called the Pin-Del, just down the road from the Valencia. Ziad Jarrahi, a hijacker from the United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania, had checked in just days apart from a man on Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.
Jarrahi paid for three nights in advance. But after the first, he wanted a refund.
On Sept. 6, just five days before the attack, the men from Flight 77 lifted weights in a nearby Gold's Gym. They were mistaken for college students.
It doesn't appear that they planned to stick around for long, though.
Their memberships were temporary, good for only a week.
Tribune staff reporter Monica Davey contributed to this report from Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla.Copyright © 2015, CT Now