- "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, 2001.
- 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.
- Many 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
- 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 lockers.
- 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 grounded.
- "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 add up.
- "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 free-lancer.
- 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
- 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 the story.
- 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.
- On 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 Sept.
- "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
- 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
- I 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 al-Qaeda hideout.
- 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.
- The car 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
- 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 covered.
- 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