Former Briscoe worker remembers meeting terrorists

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Even 10 years later, the names roll off the tongue of Candy Bowen Tanner with an ease and fluidity unnatural to most non-Muslim Americans.

"Marwan al Shehhi and Mohamed Atta," she said. "Those names are stuck in my head forever. And I promise I didn't pull up the old newspapers."

The names, of course, are those of the terrorists believed to have piloted hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 -- Atta, the ringleader, flying into the north tower, al Shehhi flying into the south.

The previous January, a 21-year-old Tanner met them both.

A criminal justice student at Gwinnett Tech, the Suwanee native was working at Gwinnett County's Briscoe Field, in the offices of Advanced Aviation. She helped the men register for practice flights they would later take at the Lawrenceville airport, less than nine months before they sent all of America reeling with the first foreign attacks on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

"It's just absolutely insane that they were the two that flew the planes," Tanner said in a recent phone interview from her Virginia home.

Even after the two terrorists' photos were plastered on TV and newspapers, the encounter didn't immediately register with Tanner. Then, four days after the attacks, she got a call: The FBI was at Briscoe and needed to talk to her.

While being questioned, the strangeness of Atta and al Shehhi's visit flooded back. The duo purported to be from Hamburg, Germany, only partially filling out forms and using German passports. They would later schedule a flight with a trainer before booking a solo flight.

"Atta was the one that did all the talking when they came to the flight school," Tanner said. "The other guy was really weirdly quiet. I would ask him a question and Mohamed Atta would answer for him."

The terrorists did not technically receive training in Lawrenceville -- that came several months after being certified at an accelerated pilot program in Florida, and took similar practice flights at other small airports.

Nowadays, there is a stricter visa process for foreign students seeking flight training in the U.S. They cannot start until the Transportation Security Administration, created after 9/11 to protect U.S. air travel, runs a fingerprint-based criminal background check with the FBI's help and runs their names against terrorist watch lists. TSA inspectors visit FAA-certified flight schools at least once a year to make sure students have proper documentation verifying their identities and haven't overstayed their visas.

Fingerprinting and criminal background checks done on foreign students before they can enter U.S. flight schools are not done on U.S. citizens.

In a 2001 interview with the Daily Post, Tanner said she felt "used" and like she had helped Atta and al Shehhi carry out their plot simply by doing her daily job. After a decade, that feeling has faded. But the eeriness of a simple encounter hasn't.

"It's just a weird feeling to even have come into contact with someone like that," Tanner said. "That's like saying you knew Hitler before everyone knew he was a bad person."