‘It’s been a loss of a lifetime’ — (Portland Press Herald)

Original article no longer available

Portland Press Herald

Tuesday, September 9, 2003

By JOSIE HUANG, Portland Press Herald Writer

Staff photo by Fred J. Field
Laura R. Wale was general manager of this Comfort Inn in South Portland where two terrorists stayed before they flew an airliner into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then she has lost her job and suffered an emotional breakdown.
‘It’s been a loss of a lifetime’: The general manager of the hotel where two terrorists stayed lost her job and her health. Laura Wale says her life was good. Maybe too good.
As general manager of the Comfort Inn in South Portland, she was a popular supervisor and savvy moneymaker for the hotel chain. She bought a three-bedroom house in Portland on her $70,000-plus annual salary and took regular trips to Las Vegas with her partner.
Then on Sept. 10, 2001, at 5:43 p.m., terrorist mastermind Mohamed Atta and a companion, Abdulaziz Alomari, checked into the hotel she managed. Twelve hours later, they left for the Portland International Jetport to strike the World Trade Center and change the world.
Two years after the attack, Wale has become one of the terrorists’ most unlikely victims. She never met Atta or Alomari. But she believes her connection to 9/11 and the stress of dealing with federal investigators, the national media and her company sent her life into a tailspin.
In the past two years she has gone from corporate darling to persona non grata, banned from the hotel she ran for about seven years for allegedly threatening to hurt an employee.
Many people learned to cope after crossing paths with the terrorists at flight schools, universities and stores. But Wale’s mental health deteriorated. Her behavior became so erratic that she eventually checked into a psychiatric unit during a visit to the Washington, D.C., area last fall.
“I mean, it’s been a loss of a lifetime,” Wale said, smoking a cigarette as she sat on a Portland park bench on a recent afternoon. “My life up until now is over as I know it.”
Unemployed for almost a year, Wale said the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks would be the first time she wasn’t “under someone’s thumb” and could talk freely about her experiences.
“Nobody has really told the story about what it was like to be on the inside,” said Wale, a gravelly-voiced woman of 38, with a thin, determined mouth. “That’s the story and there’s a whole lot of people like me who don’t know what to do.”
Wale gamely answers most questions, telling the story of her meltdown with bitterness and biting humor.
“For a long time, a lot of people thought I felt responsible. . . . What could I have done?” she said. “But when you’re a hotel (general manager) . . . you’re accountable for that property 24-7. . . . And it happened at that hotel. That’s where it all started out.”
At turns, she sounds impatient and agitated. Her story veers off into conspiracy theories.
How did government agents know to storm the Comfort Inn only hours after the Twin Towers fell? Why did the FBI release surveillance video of Atta and Alomari at various locations in South Portland, but not the lobby of the Comfort Inn?
What, she wonders, is on that tape?
A fastidious record-keeper, she produces documentation of her falling out with the Silver Spring, Md.-based Sunburst Hospitality Corp., which runs the Comfort Inn hotel chain, including a photocopy of the criminal trespass notice.
Sunburst’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, Kevin Hanley, refused to comment for this story.
But in a Sept. 25, 2001, letter he commended Wale and her staff for their “unparalleled professionalism” after Sept. 11. He reserved special praise for Wale, passing on a compliment from an FBI agent.
“(The agent) indicated that the FBI would not have been able to perform its duties effectively without the total support and cooperation from you and your staff,” Hanley wrote. “As he said, ‘No’ is not in Laura’s vocabulary.”
Wale entered the hospitality industry as an 18-year-old in Toledo, Ohio, and developed a reputation as a trouble-shooter and able leader. She climbed up the ranks and after a successful stint in Phoenix, was transferred to the Comfort Inn in South Portland in 1995.
“When she came, it was like a breath of fresh air,” said Lynda Eaton, who worked at the South Portland hotel. “It just felt like she knew what she was doing.”
Eaton said Wale was known for being fair-minded and fun. She threw regular pizza parties to show her appreciation for employees and treated them to buffet dinners whenever the hotel won an award for excellence.
Her staff thought she could handle anything – even a hotel stay by two of the most notorious Sept. 11 terrorists.
“She dealt with it by herself,” Eaton said. “Nobody came up from corporate. It was a little too much but she was a very strong woman. I always admired that of her.”
Wale felt just as confident about her abilities. After watching the “Today” show and learning that American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m., Wale rushed to work, prepared to go into crisis mode. She arrived just in time to see United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the south tower at 9:03 a.m.
Because flights were halted, she thought, “I’m going to have guests who can’t get out. Guests who can’t get in. Phone service is going to be interrupted. The whole shooting match is going to go down.”
She put all her managers on 24-hour call. After she went home for the day, around 7 p.m., she got a phone call from the hotel. An FBI agent was on the other line.
“Your hotel has had direct involvement in 9/11. We need you to come in,” the agent told her, according to Wale. Wale turned to her partner, Dee Franks, and said: “Our world just changed. Our world just changed.”
Wale spent the next 48 hours at the hotel, bringing in crisis counselors for her staff, signing evidence forms, retrieving the surveillance video, running names, making faxes – whatever the FBI wanted.
“The Dumpster needed to be moved,” she said. “The picture of (Atta’s) shirt on the FBI Web site? They pulled that out of our Dumpster at the Comfort Inn.”
Wale said little help came from corporate headquarters, other than a script she was to repeat to reporters neither confirming nor denying the investigation.
After more than 574 calls from the media in the first two weeks after the terrorist attacks – everybody, Wale said, from the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward to the National Enquirer had contacted her – she began referring reporters to the company.
The constant pressure was beginning to wear her down.
Wale said it upset her that she needed to be tested for anthrax because she had been one of the first people to enter the terrorists’ hotel room after the attacks.
But perhaps the biggest blow came when she discovered on Sept. 26 that the federal government had cited her in court records in its case against the alleged 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui. As the Comfort Inn’s general manager, she was the custodian of hotel records being used as government exhibits.
“What does anything they acquire from my hotel on 9/11 have to do with him or (what do) I have to do with it?” she asked.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where Moussaoui is facing trial for conspiracy to murder, would not comment on the case.
In the ensuing months, Wale says she became depressed and had trouble sleeping. Medication did little to help her mood and she began to distance herself from friends and family. Long after the FBI and reporters left her hotel, she became fixated on understanding what happened on Sept. 11, and pulled all-nighters conducting research on the Internet.
She also made sure to keep photocopies of Atta’s hotel receipt and an inventory of items the FBI took out of his hotel room.
On an August 2002 trip to Las Vegas to see Cher in concert, Franks, Wale’s partner of nine years, realized that something was undeniably wrong.
“The emotional abandonment made me think, what’s wrong with her, what’s wrong with me,” Franks said. “The walls came up high, the walls came up higher.”
Wale’s workplace relationships also became increasingly strained. Eaton, the hotel’s assistant executive housekeeper, quit last September, a year after the attacks. Wale had become unbearably demanding, Eaton said, and picked on her relentlessly.
Wale herself knew something wasn’t “quite right” and flew to Maryland last November to share her concerns with hotel executives.
That’s when Wale suffered a nervous breakdown and checked herself into Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health Adventist Healthcare in Rockville, Md., on Nov. 11, said Ralph Tucker, her workers’ compensation lawyer and former head of the state Workers’ Compensation Commis- sion.
Wale had been stopped for speeding, according to Tucker and hospital reports, and told police that she had been trying to get away from government agents.
She had initially stopped as demanded by police, but had moved her car to avoid blocking a bus stop, Tucker said.
Police charged Wale with eluding arrest and told her to voluntarily enter a psychiatric ward. After an 11-day stay, Wale emerged with a diagnosis that included depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – and no job.
Sunburst had fired Wale the same day she entered Potomac Ridge, saying that she had threatened an employee with bodily harm in November and bothered others with phone calls at work and at home.
Tucker said that burnout caused the nervous breakdown and Sunburst should rehire Wale. At the very least, Tucker said, the company could give her workers’ compensation benefits. Money has dried up for Wale and forced her to sell her house.
The state is expected to schedule a mediation session between Wale and Sunburst sometime soon. In the meantime, she is still looking for work in the hospitality industry. Maine hotels, she said, have labeled her the “9/11 G.M.” so she has begun searching outside the state, particularly in the D.C. area.
“It is who I am,” she said. “I’ve been doing it for the last 20 years and I’m damn good at it.”
Wale is working on a book on her post-Sept. 11 experiences while trying to regain a semblance of her old life with the help of a therapist, her friends and family. She said she has no use for medication. The anti-depressants she took for about a year after Sept. 11 may have exacerbated her stress, she said.
“It’s a blessing . . . that I’ve been able to get it back together,” Wale said. “I lost my lifetime prior to Sept. 11. That person is completely gone and changed now. The only way I can look at it positively now, is that I got through it.”
Occasionally, she talks to her old friend and employee, Eaton, who now manages a clothing store in South Portland. They meet for coffee and discuss anything but the hotel, or Sept. 11.
Wale looks good, Eaton said. She’s lost weight and dresses as smartly as she did at the Comfort Inn. She can be as funny as ever.
But it’s apparent to Eaton that Wale’s familiar spark is missing and she always walks away from their meetings feeling a sense of loss.
“I still try to think of her and see her in my own eyes: a strong, feisty, in-charge person at the hotel,” Eaton said. “That everything just crumbled, it saddens me.”
Josie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: jhuang@pressherald.com

Copyright  2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.