Prior Knowledge of Sept. 11 Not Just Urban Legend

Insight on the News | September 10, 2002
By Jeffrey Scott Shapiro

"What are you looking at?" asked the schoolteacher as she approached one of her freshman students. The boy, a young Palestinian, seemed captivated as he stared out the window across Brooklyn toward the lower downtown area of Manhattan.

"Do you see those two buildings?" he asked while pointing toward the World Trade Center. "They won't be standing there next week." It was noon, Sept. 6, 2001.

Antoinette DiLorenzo didn't take her student's comment all too seriously. Of course the twin towers would be there next week, she assured him. The student shook his head and reiterated his prediction until his 15-year old brother, a sophomore, elbowed him and told him to be quiet. "He's just kidding," the older boy said politely.

Five days later at 8:45 a.m., DiLorenzo heard a loud explosion from the north. Thunderstruck, she turned to the window and eventually watched both towers collapse into shattered glass and crumbled steel.

Many people believed this story was nothing more than an urban legend when they first heard it. Everyone has heard similar stories in the wake of such a disaster. Despite the almost unbelievable circumstances of the story, I was able to confirm it last October while working as a crime reporter for the Journal News, a New York-based Gannett newspaper. Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman for the New York City Board of Education, confirmed that school officials reported the incident to police and that the matter had since been taken over by the FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force (FBI-JTTF).

New Utrecht High School was closed Sept. 12, 2001, but as soon as it reopened the following morning, a shaken DiLorenzo quietly approached a New York City Police Department (NYPD) school-safety officer in the school's first-floor lobby. Soon, a dozen investigators stormed the school, interrogating students and searching lockers.

After federal agents questioned DiLorenzo, police detectives questioned her fourth-period class to see if anyone else had heard the boy's comments. Once the detectives were finished, the boy and his brother forcibly were taken to the 62nd Precinct headquarters, where two investigators with the FBI-JTTF questioned them for several hours. Their father, who was in Israel at the time of the attacks, was scheduled to fly home Sept. 11 on a commercial airliner, but he was delayed when all flights to the United States were grounded.

"They asked us if we knew [Osama] bin Laden or if we knew the airline hijackers," the older brother told me. "They were convinced my brother was not only a part of the attacks but that he had helped plan them. They believed it, I could see it in their eyes."

The two boys were grilled for hours. By the end of the interviews, they had answered repeated questions about what they had said in class the week before.

"From the angle we were looking at, you could only see one of the trade towers because one was hidden behind the other," the older brother told me. "My brother likes attention, and so he called me over and pointed out the window toward the tower. He smiled at me and said, 'Do you know why you can only see one building? Because I blew the other one up.'"

The first time I heard the boy's explanation I considered that he was telling me the truth. But school officials said the boy's explanation about the twin towers simply didn't add up.

"You may not have been able to clearly see the gap between them, but you could certainly tell there were two buildings," one official told me.

My story was published Oct. 11, 2001, by the Journal News ? on page 7A. The editors' reason for publishing the story on the inside was that it was "sensitive" and could cause a great deal of "outrage and backlash." By the end of the day I was back to being a free-lancer.

The next day, Jonathan Alter published an online column for that verified my story, and MSNBC repeatedly played an interview I had given Matt Lauer that morning on the Today show. Both the Daily News and the New York Post published follow-ups crediting the Journal News, and I received phone calls from media organizations from across the nation.

Both Dateline NBC and ABC's 20/20 invited me to their offices and asked me to do a follow-up with them. Unfortunately, no one from the school or police department was authorized to grant them an on-camera interview, which made it difficult for them to go forward. Luckily, an editor at a Manhattan-based magazine contracted me to stay on the story.

During my continued investigation I learned that the FBI-JTTF was investigating two other students in the New York metropolitan area for the same reason.

On Sept. 10, 2001, a sixth-grade student of Middle Eastern descent in Jersey City, N.J., said something that alarmed his teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. "Essentially, he warned her to stay away from lower Manhattan because something bad was going to happen," said Sgt. Edgar Martinez, deputy director of police services for the Jersey City Police Department. Initially, the Jersey City rumor was met with some controversy. The New York Times called it an unsubstantiated rumor, and both the Daily News and the Jersey Journal quoted a board of education official who denied that the boy had made any reference to the Sept. 11 attacks at all. Despite their reports, Martinez said the FBI-JTTF took over the matter for further investigation.

On Sept. 11, NYPD school-safety officers interrogated a Middle Eastern boy at Health Opportunities High School in the Bronx who had made similar comments that alarmed his teacher. Catie Marshall said the boy told his peers something as the school was being evacuated on Sept. 11.

"He warned them not to ride any city buses because he had been told at his mosque the week before to stay off all public transportation for a while," said one NYPD officer from the investigating 40th Precinct. "He said it wouldn't be safe." The FBI-JTTF since has taken over the matter.

One New Utrecht official told me that of the 509 Arab-American students who attend the school, many have come forward with their own stories about having prior knowledge. "Kids are telling us that the attacks didn't surprise them," she told me. "This was a nicely protected little secret that circulated in the community around here. I guess they were talking about it among themselves, but they didn't share it with us ? at least not before the attacks."

According to students, many of their Arab-American peers were seen taking photographs of the crumbling twin towers from New Utrecht on Sept. 11. "Don't you think it's strange so many of them happened to take their cameras to school that particular day?" one student asked me.

I was beginning to get the picture. Both Brooklyn and New Jersey historically have been associated with terrorism. According to an FBI indictment against bin-Laden, al-Qaeda members used to operate secretly out of the now-defunct Alikifah Refugee Center on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, an office surrounded by Islamic schools and mosques. Today, the former organization's address has been stripped from the building and co-opted into a private business that sells Middle Eastern fragrances, incense and hardbound copies of the Koran. Those familiar with the center told me that New Jersey-based Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman was a frequent visitor to the secret al-Qaeda hideout.

Police always have had concerns about sleeper agents in the area. They particularly were concerned by a story I had heard from several NYPD sources about an abandoned rental car that was parked in front of a mosque only a few blocks from New Utrecht.

The car had been rented under the phony name "Bomkr" from Logan International Airport in Boston shortly before the attacks. Investigators thought the name sounded a lot like "bomb car." The anonymous party rented several other cars from Logan, all of which either have disappeared or been abandoned. Police suspect the cars were used by al-Qaeda operatives to return to their home bases after the attacks.

I turned in my story to my editor who, after reading it, hesitated and then opted to pay me a kill fee instead. I called the New York Times Magazine. "I don't doubt the boy actually said these things," a top editor told me. "But we don't know why he said them."

I received a similar wave of responses from a variety of national magazines. I reflected on a conversation I had had with someone I knew at NBC who told me that Dateline actually had known about the New Utrecht incident before I published my story. "No one wanted to follow up on it," he told me. "They figured it either wasn't true or it would be too hard. They were only interested in the story after you broke it first."

It's been one year since I first began working this story. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about what that man at NBC said to me. Even Marshall admitted she was surprised that it took as long as it did for the New Utrecht story to get out and that she was even more surprised that more news agencies didn't follow up.

I don't have the resources to continue an ongoing investigation into who had prior knowledge of the attacks ? but I am sure someone out there does. Many things have happened since I broke my first story. On Nov. 9, 2001, my sources informed me that the same boy who predicted the attacks told school officials there would be a plane crash on Nov. 12. I decided to inform an FBI agent I knew who told me that without specific information, there was little they could do.

Once again, the boy's prophecy came true.

Three minutes after American Airlines Flight 587 took off from JFK International Airport to the Dominican Republic, both its engines fell from its wings, dooming the plane to crash in Belle Harbor, located in the Rockaway section of Queens. Of the 260 people aboard, there were no survivors. To date, authorities suspect the crash was an accident. I'm not so sure.

Recently I learned the investigation into the New Utrecht incident had been closed because authorities were "unable to obtain any further viable information that would explain what really happened." School sources tell me DiLorenzo has "stood firm" on her account of the boy's comments.

There's a story out there ? and it needs to be covered.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is an investigative reporter who spent several months covering the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. He still is researching the issue of prior knowledge and can be reached at