By Chris Christensen, Community Contributor for the Hillsboro Herald
“Hiding in Plain Sight”
My Encounters With the 9/11 Terrorists
Pictured: Three frames from the security camera video of Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon
(Image Credit: By Federal government of the United States as part of a FOIA release by the government., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org)
As the nation solemnly commemorates the 22nd anniversary of the infamous September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the occasion brings back an unsettling remembrance of my own encounters with the hijackers, which took place in the small town of La Mesa, California in the weeks and months preceding the attack.
Little did I know that my seemingly ordinary trips to the local Star Mart gas station on Spring Street would forever be etched in my memory, for it was here that I encountered some of the individuals who would later become the hijackers responsible for the tragic events that unfolded on that fateful day.
Two years prior to the 9/11 attacks, I had moved to La Mesa, a quiet suburban community just east of San Diego. It was a picturesque place with its palm tree-lined streets and a quaint Bavarian-themed downtown. Trailblazer legend Bill Walton attended Helix High School in La Mesa, and we moved there from Portland in late 1998 for employment. In 2001, I happened to live just blocks from the nearby Star Mart gas station on Spring Street.
I had been filling up at Sam’s Star Mart ever since moving to La Mesa, as it was the closest gas station to my house at the time. On multiple occasions, I had gone there to fill up my car with gas or to grab a drink or snack, little did I know that each time, I was about to come face-to-face with some of the men who would go on to commit one of the most heinous acts in modern history.
While Oregon has only recently approved self-serve gas, it has been the norm in California for years. Pumping your own gas usually involves a trip into the mini-mart to pay, and to grab a drink or snack…an everyday occurrence.
This gas station was like any other in most respects, but I had noticed that something felt different lately with the attendants. As I approached the counter to pay for my gas, I often couldn’t help but notice that the men behind the counter – sometimes one, sometimes two or more, were, without exception, cold and distant.
I do remember they also often had an eerie black stare, and they exuded an unfriendly and distant demeanor in each encounter that would send an unconscious shiver down my spine. My neighbor (who had also noticed a palpable change) had once even cracked an offhand remark with me about the “terrorist Texaco” in the neighborhood.
As it turned out, the hunch was right; One of the men who worked there prior to September 2001 was Nawaf Al-Hazmi (pictured), who
was later identified as one of the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11th.
In the weeks leading up to the attacks, no one had reason to suspect these individuals or their intentions. They were just gas station attendants, or so I thought. It wasn’t until the events of 9/11 unfolded that the chilling reality of those chance encounters began to sink in.
Nawaf Al Hazmi and his accomplices, including Khalid Al-Mihdhar (pictured),
(Image Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
had been working in the La Mesa area prior to the attacks.
I wondered, how could individuals who had seemingly been welcomed and integrated into our country and peaceful neighborhood, harbor such sinister intentions?
Could it be possible that these happenstance encounters, just before the tragic event, could have had any effect on the terrorists’ state of mind? We will never know for sure, but the thought still haunts me to this day.
In the wake of the attacks, the FBI and other authorities launched a thorough investigation into the hijackers’ activities leading up to 9/11. It was revealed that Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Khalid Al-Mihdhar had taken advantage of the relative ease of movement within the United States to plot their devastating attack. They had obtained legal identification and even rented an apartment in the community, all while attending flight school and meticulously planning their act of terror.
As Americans reflect on the events of that tragic day, it’s important to remember the heroes who emerged from the rubble and the countless lives that were forever changed. But it’s also crucial that we never forget the lessons we learned from the encounters with the terrorists leading up to the attacks.
To this day, it is still hard to fathom the notion that such evil could exist within our peaceful community. My personal experience with these terrorists serves as a stark reminder to this day that vigilance and awareness are necessary in an uncertain world.
The encounters at the Sam’s Star Mart gas station may have been brief, but their impact on me has been profound. It serves as a haunting reminder of the thin line that separates normalcy from terror, and the importance of reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement; “if you see something, say something”.
Each year on September 11th, I’m reminded that the events of that day 22 years ago touched us all, even in the quiet corners of suburban, small-town America.
As we mark the solemn anniversary of that dark day in our nation’s history, we must honor the memory of those we lost and the resilience of our country. But we must also remain vigilant and committed to ensuring that such a tragedy never happens again. The motivations that drove Nawaf Al-Hazmi and his accomplices to commit their heinous acts that day may forever remain a mystery, but America’s resolve to protect our country from such attacks must forever remain unwavering.
One thing’s for sure: I will never forget that day.
To read the full report of the 9/11 Commission, CLICK HERE