Twenty years after checking in two of the 9/11 terrorists onto a flight from Portland, Maine, to Boston, retired ticket agent Michael Tuohey, who worked at U.S. Airways, says seeking out mental health professionals and going to therapy was critical in coming to terms with deep feelings of regret.
Early in the morning on Sept. 11, 2001, Tuohey was smoking outside the Portland International Jetport when he caught sight of two men who seemed "confused."
They were Mohammed Atta and Abdul-Azzia Al-Omari, two of the would-be hijackers who would board a U.S. Airways flight in Portland, transfer to an American Airlines flight in Boston and, within hours, fly that plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"I had been to three psychologists. They all told me, 'Michael, you are suffering from severe PTSD,'" said Tuohey during an interview this week at his home in Scarborough, Maine.
Tuohey explained that it took multiple tries to find the right person to help him overcome some of the most crippling reactions to his grief.
"They all said, 'You need to see a psychiatrist,'" he explained.
It was immediately apparent to co-workers that he was acting very differently the day after 9/11.
"One of the other agents says, 'Hey, Mike, are you alright? You just seem lost somewhere,' then someone else an hour later says, 'You may want to go home, you seem like you're drifting off,'" he recalled. "I'm like, 'OK, I don't mind going home,' because all we were dealing with, you couldn't help because the skies were closed."
Among the problems Tuohey experienced was finding himself in a dissociative state to the point there were times he thought he saw Atta in passing cars, on walks on the beach or in grocery stores.
"The worst one was if I went to get the mail at the mailbox a couple of times, a car would drive by, they're going by 30-35 miles an hour, somebody's looking out the window, 'It's Atta,'" he said.
Tuohey credits the fourth mental health specialist he received care from with helping him finally recover, a process that began in 2004 and took about 18 months.
"It made a world of difference," said Tuohey.
More on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks
He explained that, while he is still upset by video of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11, he otherwise is not as disturbed when thinking about the events related to it.
"There's a scab on that wound, and it's almost completely disappeared," he said.
Tuohey recommends anyone who is struggling with mental health to seek professional help, something he admitted he was skeptical about at first and was "hesitant" to seek out.
"It's good to get it out," he said. "That's why I have no problem speaking about it 20 years later."