GJ man met 9/11 hijacker in flight school

Photo by Dean Humphrey—Paul Ludwig of Grand Junction shows the fight path that Mohamed Atta drew on an aeronautical chart when he attended a beginning ground school class to become a pilot in 1997. The path stops at the World Trade Center. Ludwig says Atta used the pencil, center, to draw the flight path.

The bold pencil line drawn down the map, an aeronautical section chart of the East Coast, runs across Connecticut, through Manhattan and stops dead at the group-obstruction marker for the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

The line was drawn by Mohamed Atta more than three years before Atta hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston and flew that exact route into the North Tower on the clear blue morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Paul Ludwig said Atta — whom he knew only as Mohamed — borrowed his mechanical pencil to draw the line during a classroom exercise at a ground school in New Jersey. The class of four students in 1997 was learning to fly small planes.

Ludwig, who moved to Grand Junction in 2002, said he thought nothing of that line until Sept. 27, 2001. That’s when Atta’s clean-shaven, charm-free mug shot appeared on television screens across the country as he was identified as the ringleader of the attacks.

Being confronted by the cold eyes of Mohamed “was a scary moment,” said Ludwig, who was working on the 40th floor of a building across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center. He was on his way to work that morning when his train was evacuated at the stop before the World Trade Center station, Ludwig said.

The mugshot was the first time he had seen Atta, much less given him any thought, since the end of their ground-school training, he said. He said he had no reason after the six-week course to keep in touch with Atta, with whom he shared an interest in aviation and nothing else.

Ludwig once discussed his own fascination with flight with his classmates, including Atta, he said. Atta’s response was to snap at his classmates that “he was a Palestinian who was learning to fly so that he could retaliate against Israeli attacks,” Ludwig wrote in a recollection of his experience with Atta and of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Atta was an Egyptian, though, investigators later said, one who dictated in his will in April 1996 that he be buried under Islamic law.

A Salt Lake City native and violinist who lived 20 years in New York City, Ludwig said he once invited his classmates to a concert he was playing, only to be rebuffed by Atta, who said he disliked Manhattan because of an experience he had there.

While dining alone in Greenwich Village, Atta realized an older woman was staring at him, and when he asked why, he was told that he bore a striking resemblance to her deceased son, Atta told him.

She asked that he wave to her and say, “Bye, Mom,” as she left the restaurant, so that she might feel as though she had a proper farewell. He complied, only to learn the woman had told the waiters that her “son” would pick up her tab, which he was forced to do.

It was a “typical New York scam,” one that victims generally smile about ruefully, Ludwig said.

Atta, though, had no sense of humor, dark or otherwise, about that incident. In fact, he seemed to have no sense of humor at all, Ludwig said.

“Mohamed was a very serious student, focused, as was I at the time, on the business of learning to fly. We sat together in class for a month or more, two nights a week, three-and-a-half hours a night, often working together on the course work at hand,” Ludwig wrote. “Most of our conversation, during breaks and before and after class, was about flying, naturally enough. He never talked about family or friends, nor did I ever see him with anyone.”

Ludwig said he was on the streets in downtown Jersey City the morning of Sept. 11 when he heard “two dull thuds about a quarter-second apart” from lower Manhattan.

He realized later that those thuds were the sounds of Flight 11 plugging into the North Tower and,  later still, that in the interim between those thuds, Atta died, along with 81 passengers, nine flight attendants and two pilots.

Ludwig, who works for the Grand Junction symphony, where he also plays violin, has grounded his dreams of flight. He has, however, saved the section chart and the pencil Atta used to draw the lines of approach to the World Trade Center.

The pencil “used to be my favorite,” he said. “I’ve retired it.”

For months after the attacks, Ludwig scanned obituaries of the innocents who died on Sept. 11, wondering if he knew any of them. It turned out he knew none.

“Mohamed was the only person I knew who died in the attack,” Ludwig wrote. “When new acquaintances ask, on hearing I was there then: ‘Oh, did you know anyone who died?’ I honestly say: ‘I lost no friends that morning.’ ”


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