Laurel's tie to the 9/11 terrorists sent chills down the spines of residents as they found out on national news that the FBI had zeroed in on the city as they attempted to follow the hijackers' trails.
Not much is left of the two hotels where residents and managers said some of the terrorists stayed in the weeks before 9/11.
Valencia Motel residents interviewed in 2001 said that they recognized at least five of the terrorists as staying in the motel on Route 1, just north of the Howard County line, between Aug. 23 and Sept. 11. The motel's manager, Rakesh Shah, told the Leader then that FBI agents had visited his motel numerous times in the week after 9/11, seizing records, interviewing employees and searching Room 343. That room was located in a part of the motel that was across northbound Route 1, and its units were typically occupied by families or patrons who were lodging long-term.
Today, the highest numbered room at the Valencia is something like 210: The building where 343 was — a small, shabby suite on the back side — has been torn down, and replaced with a Sleep Inn and Suites franchise hotel. Also, most of the guest at the motel, which sits between the boulevarded north and southbound Route 1, are now construction workers with Maryland and Virginia license tags on their cars and trucks.
In their search of Laurel, The FBI also singled out another Route 1 motel in the city — the Pin-Del Motel. Suresh Patel, who was manager of the Pin-Del in 2001, told the Leader that the FBI seized records from him indicating two 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhamzi and Ziad Jarrah, had separately booked rooms on nights in late August and early September 2001.
The rooms, and the Pin-Del, are now gone, replaced in 2006 by a Days Inn Suites. Current manager Lawrence Serrell said that when the new motel first opened, they got phone calls from people looking for the Pin-Del, not from those curious about the terrorists connections but from travelers looking for an affordable place to stay.
Other reports from business managers and residents coming out in 2001 had the terrorists eating at the Laurel Mall food court; visiting Pizza Time, on Route 1, and an adult bookstore in Beltsville; and working out at a gym in Greenbelt.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Laurel resident Diane Ashworth was branch manager at the Laurel Library, another place the FBI sent its investigators.
"Apparently, there was the belief that some of the plotters were in Laurel and actually used the library computers to help them in their plans," Ashworth, now retired, said last week.
Ashworth and her husband had left for vacation in the Outer Banks, in North Carolina, Sept. 15, 2001, and she said they learned about the FBI's visits to Laurel, and to the Laurel Library, while watching a national news report on TV.
She called the library staffer who was covering for her and was told the FBI was interviewing staff to see if they recognized any of the terrorists.
"I don't know how helpful anybody could be," Ashworth said. "I think everyone was shaken by the magnitude of the event itself. Staff were saying, 'Maybe, I helped this person. Maybe, I saw this person.' "
Ashworth said the FBI confiscated the library's public-use computers but said that since the library doesn't store users' information, she doubts the computers were very helpful to the investigation.
The library closed Sept. 11 but reopened the next day.
"Keeping it closed would be giving into terrorism," Ashworth said.