In the 43-year history of the "Longboat Observer," two staffers' involvement in Longboat Key's connection to that horrible tragedy will forever tie them and the newspaper to history.
Two days after the twin towers collapsed, with smoke still sending signals of horror and dust choking all of Manhattan, Patty Colby, the receptionist at the Longboat Observer, called then-Executive Editor Lisa Walsh, who was in her second-floor office.
It was early afternoon. Stationed at the front of the office on Gulf of Mexico Drive, Colby served as our greeter and front-line gatekeeper.
“There are two men here to see you,” Colby relayed to Walsh. “They say they’re with the Secret Service.”
Walsh remembers a hot flash rushing through her body.
Two Secret Service agents at the Longboat Observer, the paper whose police blotter is full of high crimes, such as snakes in mailboxes and neighbors’ dogs barking too loud?
But like all of us, when we think back to that day 20 years ago, Lisa Walsh recalls the surreal scene — and two days after that — like they happened yesterday.
What occurred next can be called the most history-making story in the life of the Longboat Observer. As the U.S. and world swirled in agony over the most heinous terrorist attack in modern history, two people at this little community newspaper on this tiny barrier island off the coast of Florida found themselves as key players in the Secret Service’s hunt for clues.
It has to be one of the more fascinating news stories in the 43-year life of the Longboat Observer. But here’s the funny, odd part: Not much of it ever made it into print. Until now.
The two blue-suited agents towered over Walsh, a petite, 5-foot-2, with her signature strand of pearls around her neck. She looked up at them, shaking inside with fear.
“May we speak to you in private?” one asked.
Walsh walked the hallway, escorting them to her office. She told herself: “I shouldn’t be so scared. We didn’t do anything.” Her hands trembled.
“How can I help you?” she asked as they took seats in her office.
“Where did you get the stories in your paper about the van of Middle Eastern men and the terrorists living in the trailer park?” one of the agents asked.
He was inquiring about City Editor Shay Sullivan’s news story recounting a conversation he had heard among Longboat Key firefighters. Former Fire Marshal Carroll Mooneyhan told his colleagues about a van full of Middle Eastern-looking men pulling up to the Colony’s security gate early that morning and posing to be a news crew scheduled to interview President George W. Bush.
Mooneyhan said the men were denied access, but days after the story appeared in the Observer, it mushroomed into talk about whether this alleged van and group of men actually were trying to assassinate Bush.
That was just one of the bizarre events that occurred that day and leading up to the attacks. Everyone on Longboat and in Greater Sarasota became stunned to learn in time about the many pieces of this story that involved Longboat Key, Sarasota and Venice.
Mastermind Mohammed Atta and his miserable band of terrorists had taken flying lessons at the Venice Municipal Airport. Some of them lived awhile in Palmer Ranch, and some, Sullivan also learned, lived in one of the trailer parks on Longboat Key.
There was more.
Sullivan later learned from a server at the Longboat Key Holiday Inn that Atta and his cronies had dined there multiple times. Not sure whether to believe her, Sullivan took Walsh to meet the server so Walsh could hear her story firsthand.
The young woman stood across the bar from them. “I knew she was telling the truth,” Walsh says now. “Her hands were shaking.” She told them she saw Atta’s photo on TV after the attacks and instantly recognized that he was the man she waited on.
How could this be — little, idyllic Longboat Key at the center of this international catastrophe? And on top of that, the Longboat Observer’s executive editor and city editor becoming momentary key figures in this unfolding mystery?
Back in Walsh’s office, the Secret Service agents didn’t engage in any happy, small talk. “They were serious,” Walsh says. In response to their question about where the Observer obtained its information on the van and trailer park, a nervous Walsh replied:
“We’re reporters. That’s what we do.”
There was a tense moment of silence. And then one of the agents cracked a slight smile and lightly slapped his knee, as if to say, “Duh, we should have thought of that.”
But light moment didn’t last. “In so many words,” Walsh remembers, “they asked us not to write anymore stories.”
Walsh’s reply? “I made no promises. I said, ‘If Shay finds out anything more, that’s what we do.”
They thanked her for her time. Walsh escorted them down the stairs to the front door.
Two days later, they were back.
This time, they handed her a piece of paper with a phone number — a 202-Washington, D.C., area code — and asked her to call it between 8-9 p.m.
“Who is this?” Walsh asked.
They declined to say. “Call the number. They will tell you whether the information about Carroll Mooneyhan is accurate.”
For the rest of the day, Walsh felt a knot in her stomach. That night, she made the call. A man answered. “This is Lisa Walsh from the Longboat Observer. To whom am I speaking?” she asked.
He would not say. All he said was: “The information about Carroll Mooneyhan is not true.”
Walsh: “Would you please repeat that?”
“The information about Carroll Mooneyhan is not true.”
Walsh: “Thank you.” She hung up. That was it.
Walsh remembers thinking moments afterward. “I believe Shay. That guy lied to me.”
Today, Walsh says that was the most exciting experience in her journalistic career. “I was scared to death.”
Looking back, this will be part of the rich lore of the Longboat Observer. How this little, blonde editor and a curious, attentive young reporter played big roles in the chapter of 9/11 that started on Longboat Key.
We will never forget.
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