Prior Knowledge of Sept.
11 Not Just Urban Legend Posted Sept. 10,
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro
"What are you looking at?"
asked the schoolteacher as she approached one of
her freshman students. The boy, a young
Palestinian, seemed captivated as he stared out
the window across Brooklyn toward the lower
downtown area of Manhattan.
"Do you see
those two buildings?" he asked while pointing
toward the World Trade Center. "They won't be
standing there next week." It was noon, Sept. 6,
Antoinette DiLorenzo didn't take her
student's comment all too seriously. Of course the
twin towers would be there next week, she assured
him. The student shook his head and reiterated his
prediction until his 15-year old brother, a
sophomore, elbowed him and told him to be quiet.
"He's just kidding," the older boy said politely.
Five days later at 8:45 a.m., DiLorenzo
heard a loud explosion from the north.
Thunderstruck, she turned to the window and
eventually watched both towers collapse into
shattered glass and crumbled steel.
people believed this story was nothing more than
an urban legend when they first heard it. Everyone
has heard similar stories in the wake of such a
disaster. Despite the almost unbelievable
circumstances of the story, I was able to confirm
it last October while working as a crime reporter
for the Journal News, a New York-based Gannett
newspaper. Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman for the
New York City Board of Education, confirmed that
school officials reported the incident to police
and that the matter had since been taken over by
the FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force (FBI-JTTF).
New Utrecht High School was closed Sept.
12, 2001, but as soon as it reopened the following
morning, a shaken DiLorenzo quietly approached a
New York City Police Department (NYPD)
school-safety officer in the school's first-floor
lobby. Soon, a dozen investigators stormed the
school, interrogating students and searching
After federal agents questioned
DiLorenzo, police detectives questioned her
fourth-period class to see if anyone else had
heard the boy's comments. Once the detectives were
finished, the boy and his brother forcibly were
taken to the 62nd Precinct headquarters, where two
investigators with the FBI-JTTF questioned them
for several hours. Their father, who was in Israel
at the time of the attacks, was scheduled to fly
home Sept. 11 on a commercial airliner, but he was
delayed when all flights to the United States were
"They asked us if we knew
[Osama] bin Laden or if we knew the airline
hijackers," the older brother told me. "They were
convinced my brother was not only a part of the
attacks but that he had helped plan them. They
believed it, I could see it in their eyes."
The two boys were grilled for hours. By
the end of the interviews, they had answered
repeated questions about what they had said in
class the week before.
"From the angle we
were looking at, you could only see one of the
trade towers because one was hidden behind the
other," the older brother told me. "My brother
likes attention, and so he called me over and
pointed out the window toward the tower. He smiled
at me and said, 'Do you know why you can only see
one building? Because I blew the other one up.'"
The first time I heard the boy's
explanation I considered that he was telling me
the truth. But school officials said the boy's
explanation about the twin towers simply didn't
"You may not have been able to
clearly see the gap between them, but you could
certainly tell there were two buildings," one
official told me.
My story was published
Oct. 11, 2001, by the Journal News — on page 7A.
The editors' reason for publishing the story on
the inside was that it was "sensitive" and could
cause a great deal of "outrage and backlash." By
the end of the day I was back to being a
The next day, Jonathan Alter
published an online column for Newsweek.com that
verified my story, and MSNBC repeatedly played an
interview I had given Matt Lauer that morning on
the Today show. Both the Daily News and the New
York Post published follow-ups crediting the
Journal News, and I received phone calls from
media organizations from across the nation.
Both Dateline NBC and ABC's 20/20 invited
me to their offices and asked me to do a follow-up
with them. Unfortunately, no one from the school
or police department was authorized to grant them
an on-camera interview, which made it difficult
for them to go forward. Luckily, an editor at a
Manhattan-based magazine contracted me to stay on
During my continued
investigation I learned that the FBI-JTTF was
investigating two other students in the New York
metropolitan area for the same reason.
Sept. 10, 2001, a sixth-grade student of Middle
Eastern descent in Jersey City, N.J., said
something that alarmed his teacher at Martin
Luther King Jr. Elementary School. "Essentially,
he warned her to stay away from lower Manhattan
because something bad was going to happen," said
Sgt. Edgar Martinez, deputy director of police
services for the Jersey City Police Department.
Initially, the Jersey City rumor was met with some
controversy. The New York Times called it an
unsubstantiated rumor, and both the Daily News and
the Jersey Journal quoted a board of education
official who denied that the boy had made any
reference to the Sept. 11 attacks at all. Despite
their reports, Martinez said the FBI-JTTF took
over the matter for further investigation.
On Sept. 11, NYPD school-safety officers
interrogated a Middle Eastern boy at Health
Opportunities High School in the Bronx who had
made similar comments that alarmed his teacher.
Catie Marshall said the boy told his peers
something as the school was being evacuated on
"He warned them not to ride any
city buses because he had been told at his mosque
the week before to stay off all public
transportation for a while," said one NYPD officer
from the investigating 40th Precinct. "He said it
wouldn't be safe." The FBI-JTTF since has taken
over the matter.
One New Utrecht official
told me that of the 509 Arab-American students who
attend the school, many have come forward with
their own stories about having prior knowledge.
"Kids are telling us that the attacks didn't
surprise them," she told me. "This was a nicely
protected little secret that circulated in the
community around here. I guess they were talking
about it among themselves, but they didn't share
it with us — at least not before the attacks."
According to students, many of their
Arab-American peers were seen taking photographs
of the crumbling twin towers from New Utrecht on
Sept. 11. "Don't you think it's strange so many of
them happened to take their cameras to school that
particular day?" one student asked me.
was beginning to get the picture. Both Brooklyn
and New Jersey historically have been associated
with terrorism. According to an FBI indictment
against bin-Laden, al-Qaeda members used to
operate secretly out of the now-defunct Alikifah
Refugee Center on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, an
office surrounded by Islamic schools and mosques.
Today, the former organization's address has been
stripped from the building and co-opted into a
private business that sells Middle Eastern
fragrances, incense and hardbound copies of the
Koran. Those familiar with the center told me that
New Jersey-based Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar
Abdel-Rahman was a frequent visitor to the secret
Police always have had
concerns about sleeper agents in the area. They
particularly were concerned by a story I had heard
from several NYPD sources about an abandoned
rental car that was parked in front of a mosque
only a few blocks from New Utrecht.
had been rented under the phony name "Bomkr" from
Logan International Airport in Boston shortly
before the attacks. Investigators thought the name
sounded a lot like "bomb car." The anonymous party
rented several other cars from Logan, all of which
either have disappeared or been abandoned. Police
suspect the cars were used by al-Qaeda operatives
to return to their home bases after the attacks.
I turned in my story to my editor who,
after reading it, hesitated and then opted to pay
me a kill fee instead. I called the New York Times
Magazine. "I don't doubt the boy actually said
these things," a top editor told me. "But we don't
know why he said them."
I received a
similar wave of responses from a variety of
national magazines. I reflected on a conversation
I had had with someone I knew at NBC who told me
that Dateline actually had known about the New
Utrecht incident before I published my story. "No
one wanted to follow up on it," he told me. "They
figured it either wasn't true or it would be too
hard. They were only interested in the story after
you broke it first."
It's been one year
since I first began working this story. There
isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about
what that man at NBC said to me. Even Marshall
admitted she was surprised that it took as long as
it did for the New Utrecht story to get out and
that she was even more surprised that more news
agencies didn't follow up.
I don't have
the resources to continue an ongoing investigation
into who had prior knowledge of the attacks — but
I am sure someone out there does. Many things have
happened since I broke my first story. On Nov. 9,
2001, my sources informed me that the same boy who
predicted the attacks told school officials there
would be a plane crash on Nov. 12. I decided to
inform an FBI agent I knew who told me that
without specific information, there was little
they could do.
Once again, the boy's
prophecy came true.
Three minutes after
American Airlines Flight 587 took off from JFK
International Airport to the Dominican Republic,
both its engines fell from its wings, dooming the
plane to crash in Belle Harbor, located in the
Rockaway section of Queens. Of the 260 people
aboard, there were no survivors. To date,
authorities suspect the crash was an accident. I'm
not so sure.
Recently I learned the
investigation into the New Utrecht incident had
been closed because authorities were "unable to
obtain any further viable information that would
explain what really happened." School sources tell
me DiLorenzo has "stood firm" on her account of
the boy's comments.
There's a story out
there — and it needs to be
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is an
investigative reporter who spent several months
covering the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. He
still is researching the issue of prior knowledge
and can be reached at JBsAVENGER@aol.com.