A decade after terrorists did the unthinkable in taking down the World Trade Center towers, the former owner of the South Florida flight school where two of them trained says he’s still paying the price.
“The last ten years have been bad,” says Rudi Dekkers, the former owner of Huffman Aviation, in Venice, where hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi trained before Sept. 11.
Dekkers, now 55, didn’t lose any loved ones in the 9/11 attacks. But he says the financial losses and the losses to his reputation have been staggering.
After dealing with government investigations, threats to his life, even a helicopter crash he calls “suspicious,” Dekkers says his life has never been the same.
“I did not realize when Sept. 11 happened, that I was involved,” said Dekkers. He said he learned of his involvement when the FBI called him the next day.
"I woke up that morning, the day after Sept. 11 and I had a phone call at 5:30 in the morning, I never have a phone call 5:30 in the morning,” he said. “But I still did not click anything with 9/11 because that's not something you expect.
"I talked to the FBI...I don't think I realized until it sank in. I can't explain it...no one wants to be involved in something like that. I knew how big the disaster was because of the day before and now I'm involved?"
Dekkers says his involvement began in the summer of 2000, when Atta and Al-Shehhi showed up at Huffman ready to drop thousands of dollars on flight lessons.
“On July 1, 2000, two people walk into my lobby, a little guy and a big guy, and I saw immediately that they were not from here,” Dekkers said. “Atta spoke, he said 'we're looking for another flight school, we're not happy where we are and we're here to check out your facilities.'"
Dekkers claims he knew he didn’t like Atta from those first words.
"Well, when he said those words, that way, with his numb impression on his face, I immediately did not like the guy...you just have that sometimes,” he said. “I did not like Atta, but I'm a professional, I'm running a flight school, so in July, when there's no business, it's fantastic when two customers walk in and want to spend a lot of money."
Dekkers says he showed the two around and they liked what they saw.
"They came back three days later and say yeah, we would like to train here.'," Dekkers said. “That's when we enrolled them in our program, I took copies of their passports, their visas, everything."
As the two pilots-in-training continued to take classes at Huffman, Dekkers says Atta quickly earned a bad reputation with school employees.
"He treated people bad, especially females. He was impolite, he was rude!” Dekkers says.
One incident in particular gave Dekkers a glimpse into Atta’s demeanor.
"I was one time in my cafe in Venice and I heard a loud noise and I looked and I saw that Atta dropped a plate on the floor, apparently for something that he didn't like,” Dekkers said. “And I asked the waitress, 'what's going on?' [She said] ‘Well he didn't like the food, and he was waiting too long and he just dropped his plate.'"
Dekkers says he confronted Atta immediately.
"I was mad, I told him loud and clear, ‘what the F are you doing?’ and he stood up and he left,” Dekkers said. "That was the only incident that I saw that was really rude, other times I heard from females that he was very impolite.”
Atta’s behavior almost got him kicked out of the flight school.
“We were almost ready to tell him have a nice day, get the hell out of my store,” Dekkers said. “But they were good for $20,000 in the summer, my instructors were eating from them.”
Up in the air, their attitude wasn’t much better.
“The first six weeks, when Atta and Al-Shehhi were in my flight school, they were not obeying my instructors,” Dekkers said. “The instructors said 'we have two students who are not obeying, they are just steering left and right, and this is where it comes from that the people think that that's the only thing they had to do. I told my chief flight instructor, ‘kick them out, if they're not obeying, kick them out.’”
Threatened with getting kicked out, Atta and Al-Shehhi shaped up and started listening. Dekkers says the warning signs just weren’t there.
"If I would have those two students right now, with their behavior, with everything, you still don't have a clue, even today," Dekkers says. "We had no knowledge, no feeling, no nothing that they were terrorists. If we would have had one percent feeling that they were terrorists, I wouldn't have dealt with them, I would have reported them, but they were customers, paying customers in a time that there was no business."
Now there is no flight school business for Dekkers. He was forced to sell his share in Huffman, as well as another flight school he co-owned, he says.
Dekkers says he lost between $4 and $5 million on his aviation businesses and around $12 million total, all because of his association with the terrorists.
"I can't get a loan, I can't even get a normal job. If I apply for a job, they never get back to me,” he said. “One time, I got a letter that a guy said, a firm said 'we can't handle you because you're involved in 9/11.'”
Banks, businesses and even friends wanted little to do with him, Dekkers said.
"If you're involved in the biggest tragedy in America at that moment, I can understand that people want distance,” he said. “There was no clearance yet that Rudi Dekkers was not involved, everybody thought he was not involved but there was no clearance yet from the government so I understand that. I still am a rational person.”
Dekkers says he doesn’t really blame anyone for his financial problems and social ostracizing.
"It's a that was fear created by 9/11 to people. I think if it happened now, they would act a little bit more rational,” he said. “Personally, I think a lot of people who worked for government agencies were emotional too. So, I mean blame is always easy. I can only say one thing, I've been financially destroyed, not emotionally.”
As for the death threats, Dekkers says they stopped for the most part when he spoke out shortly after the attacks and told his story.
"The public saw and felt immediately I had nothing to do with it.," he says.
But Dekkers’ outspoken views on Muslims after 9/11 and his refusal to deal with them even to this day may have made him a target, he says.
Dekkers was involved in a helicopter crash in 2002 which he calls "suspicious." He says a fuel line safety wire was clipped, allowing fuel to spew out of the tank.
"I think it was somebody who was offended with my outspoken words on TV, 'I don't deal with Muslims anymore,'" Dekkers said. “I was very scared back then, I didn't know what to expect."
Dekkers has written a book, released earlier this year, about his link to the 9/11 terrorists called “Guilty by Association.”
"People ask me, ‘don't you feel guilty for what happened?’ No, not at all, not at all,” Dekkers says. “I wish it happened different, I wish it didn't happen at all but I'm not guilty. I'm guilty by knowing people that did something, crime."
Now married and the father of a 3-year-old baby, Dekkers says he’s moved on, for the most part.
“We're happy. We’re not happy financially but that's the way it is," he says. "Money, I don’t have anymore, but you can't take it with you anyway."
Dekkers also said he doesn’t spend too much time wondering if things had been different if Atta and Al-Shehhi hadn’t walked into his flight school.
“I am not a person that says what if. What if they wouldn't have come in my facility? I would have been in business, I wouldn't have had all that money lost and it still would have happened, the attacks,” he said. What if? It's a word that I don't think about.
“They ask me numerous times, ‘what would you wish?’ I wish the attacks didn’t happen but that’s so naive, that's naive. I wish they didn't step at my front door, I would be in business, but it did happen."