Court Filing: Airport Screeners on 9/11 Could Not Speak English


9-11-trialThe five terrorists who boarded United Airlines Flight 175 in Boston on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, passed through a security checkpoint that was staffed by some screeners who could not speak or understand English, did not know who Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda were, and, in one case, could not identify what Mace was, according to new court documents.

The documents, which include details not previously made public, were filed on Friday by lawyers for the family of Mark Bavis, a 31-year-old passenger on Flight 175, in the only remaining wrongful-death lawsuit out of nearly 100 filed after the attacks.

The documents, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, offer the most comprehensive look yet at what the lawsuit contends were failures by United and a security firm that ran the checkpoint used by the terrorists at Logan International Airport.

“This document demonstrates that 9/11 was completely preventable at the checkpoint for this flight, and that United did not live up to its responsibilities for security,” Donald A. Migliori, a lawyer for the family, said.

To be sure, airport screening is far different today, but the documents released Friday offer a behind-the-scenes look at the state of security measures before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The case against United and the security firm, Huntleigh USA, is scheduled for trial in November, and the presiding judge, Alvin K. Hellerstein, has said that he will probably allow Mr. Bavis’s mother, Mary, the plaintiff, to seek damages for her son’s pain and suffering – what the judge called “terror damages” – during the final 21 minutes of the flight.

It was during those minutes that the hijackers used knives, Mace and the threat of a bomb to take control of the plane, killing the pilots, stabbing a flight attendant, and flying the plane erratically as it headed for the World Trade Center, the suit says.

The new filing, which includes, for example, excerpts of confidential depositions of screeners, responds to a defense motion last month that asked Judge Hellerstein to dismiss the case.

“Neither United nor Huntleigh can be held liable under either federal or state law for not stopping an attack that the entire federal government was unable to predict, plan against or prevent,” the defense lawyers wrote.

They contended that the security system United had in place on Sept. 11, which was established at the direction of the government, was “neither intended to stop, nor capable of stopping, what happened that day.”

“The terrorists who perpetrated these attacks,” they said, “clearly studied and exploited the government’s design of this system. Their plot did not require any element of the system to ‘fail.’ ”

A United spokeswoman said Friday, “We’re actively working to resolve this case.” A Huntleigh lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

The Bavis lawyers, in their filing, contended that United had “a long history of failing to substantially comply with the federal aviation security regulations.” They cited a former United security executive retained as an expert by the plaintiffs, who contended that the airline had failed to heed warnings in the years before Sept. 11 about the need for greater staffing and training.

In focusing on the Logan checkpoint where the terrorists boarded Flight 175, the lawyers’ filing argues that the screeners lacked the necessary training and experience to do their jobs.

“Many of United and Huntleigh’s security screeners on duty on 9/11 were unable to speak or understand English,” the lawyers wrote. “One pre-board screener had such a poor grasp of the English language that she required an interpreter during her deposition,” they added.

Other screeners’ training records “failed to show their ability to read airline tickets and marking labels,” they said.

One supervisor was a 19-year-old employee with about three months of experience, the lawyers said.

Citing deposition testimony, they said at least nine screeners on duty on Sept. 11 had never heard of Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. “Astoundingly,” they added, nor had several Huntleigh officials.

Citing the terrorists’ use of Mace against the passengers, the lawyers argued that the screeners should have been able to identify the product in order to prevent it from being carried onboard the plane.

“Four screeners working the Flight 175 checkpoint did not even know what Mace was,” they wrote. “One of the screeners was still unable to identify Mace when handed the Mace canister.”

The lawyers attributed the inadequacies to the defendants’ failure to hire and retain qualified screeners “and to adequately train and prepare them to face mounting threats to civil aviation.”

“While the hijackers may have passed through screening checkpoints operated by individuals,” the lawyers wrote, “those screeners were decent people who were set up by United and Huntleigh to fail.”

{NY Times/ Newscenter}


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