After 31 years as an FBI agent, Fred Eschweiler was looking forward to retirement. He planned to teach, sail and help with his son's home decor business during the holiday rush.
But a day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Eschweiler got a call from his boss. Would he stay and oversee the expanding counterterrorism task force in Tampa?
"It's an easy decision," said Eschweiler, who, under FBI policy, would have been forced to retire at age 57. "You work 31 years and the biggest thing comes along in the bureau's history and this country, and you want to help."
Now, rather than cruising the waters of Tampa Bay aboard his 28-foot sailboat, Eschweiler is overseeing a significantly bolstered terrorism task force in Tampa's FBI headquarters.
Since Sept. 11, the number of federal agencies committed to the division's counter terrorism task force jumped from five to 11; and the participants more than tripled _ from seven to 25.
Each of the Tampa division's 150 agents is helping the team track the movements of three of the 19 hijackers involved in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
"We have put aside other investigations, and we have pretty much all of our resources directed at this investigation," said Lawrence E. Albert Jr., acting special agent in charge of the Tampa division, which includes 18 counties.
Hijackers Ziah Jarrah, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi lived and learned to fly airplanes in Venice, which is within the FBI's Tampa division.
Jarrah was at the controls of a United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Atta was on the American Airlines jet that struck the World Trade Center's first tower. And al-Shehhi was on the other United Airlines flight that leveled the second tower.
"We want to account for every hour of every day that those individuals may have been in this division and identify any associates," said Eschweiler.
The task force's investigative hub is the command post, a war room in the federal building on Zack Street where a huge television screen is tuned to CNN. That's where the tips come in. At least a dozen telephones dot the office. An editorial cartoon, among other clippings and photographs, hangs on the door. The sketch shows Osama bin Laden with a bull's-eye on his forehead. It reads, "Ground Zero."
Downstairs, brand new office space has been dedicated to task force members with new computers and telephone lines.
Since the September attacks, the Tampa task force has received 10,000 leads, many of which arrived after the public learned that three of the hijackers had connections in Venice.
The task force's focus is building a time line of the hijackers' activities in the Venice area.
Investigators have interviewed people who had contact with the hijackers during their Florida stay. They've visited restaurants and examined financial transactions and mileage on rental cars, including where the vehicles were returned.
"If they were alive, we'd be doing this to prove the crime, but since they're dead, we want to make sure nobody helped them while they were down here," Eschweiler said. "We want to make sure there are no others."
The FBI won't discuss its findings because the investigation is ongoing.
In addition to the hijackers, agents have been tracking anthrax complaints and conducting security assessments at high-profile targets such as Raymond James Stadium. Increased contact with local law enforcement agencies has kept them busy, too.
Daily, counterterrorism task force members join a conference call among the nation's 56 FBI field offices. A call can last a few hours.
Eventually, each of the FBI's field offices will have a counterterrorism task force.
"The biggest success that the task force could achieve is prevention," Eschweiler said.
Eschweiler, a New Jersey native and the father of two sons, was supposed to retire Oct. 19. He planned to paint his Clearwater home and take it easy for a few months. He looks like a detective but has two graduate degrees from the Citadel. Among his FBI stints, he taught young agents at Quantico for five years.
He will remain with the FBI another six months or "as long as they need me," he said.
"My mother's 93 years old, and she sent me a letter," Eschweiler said. "The letter said, "I know you were looking forward to your retirement,' but she said, "I know how much you love the FBI and I know how much you love this country. Please continue to protect us.' "
_ Staff writer Leanora Minai can be reached at minaisptimes.com
or (727) 893-8406.