Mohammad Atta trained here

Venice Municipal Airport is not a place one would normally think of as a training ground for terrorist pilots.

Where were you on Sept. 11, 2000?

The people to put this city on the map a year later were in Venice, learning to fly airplanes and paying cash to Rudy Dekkers, owner of Huffman Aviation at Venice Airport.

They also were moving quite often as landlords would evict them for their rude comments about women.

Stories abound that they didn’t learn how to land planes and as the world would learn a year later, they really didn’t have to learn proper take-off procedures either. All they had to do was learn to set a course and aim for a target that would be straight ahead. Success would be rewarded in heaven.

Just one year later, on Sept. 11, 2001, I was the lone reporter in the Venice Gondolier newsroom. Editor Doug Bolduc was not in yet, nor was fellow reporter Bob Mudge. Tuesday was a deadline day so they would be working late that day.

My Our Town section had “deadlined” the previous day so I was thinking about my Saturday edition.

Staff reporter Pat Horwell and staff photographer Nick Baker were in Sarasota with the president of the United States, George W. Bush, who was reading to children at Emma Booker Elementary School. That would be an interesting story for Wednesday’s paper.

About 9:30 a.m., I got a call from Melinda Mudge, Bob’s wife, telling me that a plane had crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. There was no television in the newsroom at that time so without her call, who knows when I would have heard anything?

I immediately called Pat Horwell on her cellphone but, as she was with the president, all pagers and cellphones had been turned off.

With so little knowledge, all I could think was that like the time years earlier when a small plane had flown into the Empire State Building, it must have been a mistake — a tragic accident. I still did not know that the plane was a commercial jet and the day was clear and sunny without a cloud in the sky.

When Melinda called back with news of the second plane to hit the towers, it was obvious that this was no accident.

That this paper had a reporter and photographer with the president on a day that would change the world as we knew it, put Venice into the story — at least in a little way.

I finally got home and tuned in television coverage by 7 p.m. that evening. I also got on the phone trying to contact a friend who I knew worked in one of the towers. I finally got through the next day to learn that she had moved out of the building three weeks earlier and thankfully was all right.

By 7:30 a.m. the next morning, Venice had become part of the national story.

Doug Bolduc called Bob Mudge about interviewing Charlie Voss, the accountant for Rudi Dekkers, owner of Huffman Aviation, operator of a flight school at the Venice Airport. Most of the students were from foreign countries and happened to have included Mohamed Atta and two others of Saudi descent who would die in the Trade Center attacks. The FBI had wasted no time in gathering that information.

That President Bush had been reading to area elementary school students at the time was no longer the main focus of the story.

The next day, before I left for work, a beige car pulled into my drive. In it was an FBI agent asking if I had ever seen the pilots in my neighborhood (the Gulf Shores subdivision) close to he airport. I had not because I would have been at the newspaper.

Days later, at a dry cleaner, I learned that Atta had been a customer but was so nasty to one of the female employees that he was told to take his business elsewhere. A similar story arose from a local restauranteur who claimed Atta and his cronies occasionally ate there.

It seemed they also had been asked to leave from more than one place where they lived, while at flight school, usually for insulting women.

Who would have thought that this charming city of Venice would ever play such a big role in such a frightening story with such nasty villains?

This paper has put out special editions just three times in its history. One was that week of Sept. 11, 2001.

Pat Horwell and Nick Baker would win awards for their coverage of the president from the Florida Publishers Association in July of 2002. Pat had two first place awards for her news story about what happened at the school that day and a second as a first person account of her personal experience. Baker earned five first place awards that year, one for a photo of the president reading to the children as one of his aides whispered in his ear about what had occurred.

It is one thing to be able to say I know where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot, it was another thing entirely to learn that three of the perpetrators of the Trade Center attack had learned to fly and had lived within just blocks of my house in this idyllic town on the west coast of Florida.

That I worked with professionals who covered this story as well as any of the big name writers associated with any of the national news outlets was the one good side of the story.

A couple of years later, I met a writer on a press trip who was one of very few survivors of a company that had offices in the towers. She had been out of town that day as virtually all of her co-workers had perished. As one of that company’s few survivors, she had been so affected that she went nowhere without a therapy dog until that week when we met.

More years have passed. Thanks to Venice Area Beautification Inc., volunteers, Venice is more beautiful than ever and with any luck, the biggest news at Venice Airport will be a return of the Collings Foundation’s historic planes in February 2021.


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