The Grounded Man

Prevost’s next day at work was Thursday. He had a four-hour LOFT scheduled overnight from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. (Pan Am often used the simulators during off hours.) Another instructor, Rich Lamb, was scheduled to give Moussaoui LOFT training at 6 p.m. (Prevost had been charged only with Moussaoui’s ground school course work.)

Prevost left a message for another new student to show up at 5 p.m. On the chance that someone canceled, they could fill the 6 p.m. slot, be done by 10 p.m., and avoid the overnight shift. Prevost and Lamb waited in the lobby for Moussaoui and the other student.

Dana Wilson, one of the schedulers, came up and told Lamb, “Your sim’s canceled.”

Prevost asked, “What happened to Zach?” Two days of intrigue ended with a matter-of-fact statement.

“They led him away,” she said.

 

***

 

For the next twenty-eight days, Prevost entertained his AA buddies with the anecdote of the odd Middle Easterner who disappeared into the hands of government agents. It made a good story. Over coffee, someone would prod him to repeat the account, the story that always ended with the same deliberate punch line, “They led him away.”

On the morning of September 11th, Prevost was sitting at home. The phone rang. It was his daughter Annie. In a scene that was being repeated across the country, she said, “Dad, they’re crashing airplanes into the Trade Center.”

Prevost remembers, “I’m thinking, Oh yeah, well, a Cessna got lost in the fog and crashed into the Trade Center. And then I turn on the TV and it’s no Cessna. You see this airplane banking in, and I said, ‘Shit, that’s an Airbus or a five-seven (Boeing 757).’ And bam! I saw the second one.” Prevost was like a man who after years of ignorance finds out his wife has been cheating on him. “Oh. I get it. It explained everything in a split second.”

When Moussaoui was arrested, he had in his possession two knives, binoculars, flight manuals for the 747-400, a flight simulator computer program, fighting gloves, and shin guards. After September 11th, authorities would learn Moussaoui had followed many of the same preparations as the nineteen hijackers.

In 1998, Moussaoui trained at an al-Qaida-affiliated camp in Afghanistan. In the months before his arrest, Moussaoui pursued training at the same Norman, Oklahoma, flight school attended by Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi (who piloted planes into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, respectively). Moussaoui purchased flight deck videos from the Ohio Pilot Store, just as Atta had. Moussaoui received money from Ramzi Bin al-Shibh in Germany. Bin al-Shibh, who was later captured in Pakistan and now is in U.S. custody, also wired money to Atta and al-Shehhi.

The people at the Pan Am flight school were closer to giving Moussaoui deadly skills than they imagined. Even with Moussaoui’s limited background, the instruction he paid for would have given him enough experience to guide an aircraft to a given target. In practice, you only have to turn two dials on the autopilot to maneuver the giant aircraft in flight.

Ziad Jarrah, one of four hijackers aboard United Airlines flight 93 bound for San Francisco, used those very controls to turn the plane around and head east toward Washington, D.C. Of the four hijackers who piloted planes on September 11th, none had flown an airliner before. Time in a simulator had proved sufficient.

Prevost made his observations before the pre-September 11th paradigm collapsed along with the Twin Towers. These were the innocent days before an Arab man inquiring about crop dusting warranted an automatic call to the FBI and before box cutters were considered serious weapons and Arab men were asked to get off planes for no other reason than their race. Moussaoui spent twenty-five weeks in the U.S.; he spent only two days with Prevost. So why did Clancy Prevost see so clearly what no one else seemed able to?

Al Johnson, a program manager at Pan Am and the man who introduced Prevost to Moussaoui, says, “Clancy is just the type of a guy who would be curious about what this guy wants to do with an airplane. He isn’t there just to walk in and start training a guy in the morning because the guy wants to see if he can fly a 747. I’m not sure that anybody else would have been as curious as Clancy, or asked the right questions.”

After September 11th, Alan McHale personally thanked Prevost for his actions.

 

***

 

Prevost sits across the table, takes another sip of coffee, eyes fixing me. He dispenses advice, most of it straight from AA meetings. “If you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting,” he tells me. Some of his advice runs deeper.

He looks back at Moussaoui as a walking contradiction: the quiet potential terrorist, the incompetent pilot, the Muslim fundamentalist who took advantage of an open, secular society to prepare himself possibly to attack it.

When Moussaoui met Clancy Prevost, he met his equal and his opposite. Prevost is an atheist with the intellectual energy of a college freshman, the moral clarity of a monk, and the wonder of a man awakened for the first time at the age of fifty-six from a life of drinking.

“Live your life according to principles, not people,” he says, head shaking slightly, eyes wide, grinning at the beauty of the statement. Prevost can smell B.S. a mile away. He smelled it all over Zacarias Moussaoui a month before September 11th. (Moussaoui says he had nothing to do with the attacks.) In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Moussaoui’s appeal, clearing the way in April for federal judge Leonie Brinkema to set a trial date. Today, Moussaoui is the only person who has been charged in the U.S. for the events of September 11th.

 

Pages: 1 2 3 4