Try 1 month for 99¢
091218 911-tm.jpg

Bruce Whitehead, retired principal of Hellgate Elementary School in Missoula, feared for his life in Saudi Arabia after 9/11.  

It wasn’t 9/11 but his latest textbook that brought Bruce Whitehead into the Missoulian on Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of the attacks.

The untold story of his abduction in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on the terrifying night of Sept. 12, 2001, just naturally flowed from there.

Whitehead still shakes his head to chase the scare away.

For a few moments the retired Missoula school administrator was back there again, with University of Montana education professor John Lundt and a retired Army colonel, in the back seat of a car in a convoy that was supposed to be taking them to dinner.

They were among a group of six Americans in town by invitation of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz to help restructure the Saudi educational system.

“They have the money and resources to make the change, but they need individuals who’ve already done it to help them,” Whitehead told the Missoulian a month later.

Two others were from UM — Conrad “Wesley” Snyder, director of the Office of International Programs, who arranged the trip with the Saudis, and John “Jock” Schorger, the technology expert from the school of education.

Whitehead was principal at Hellgate Elementary and an associate professor at UM. He was there because he had co-authored “Planning for Technology,” a guide for school administrators, technology coordinators and curriculum leaders that had attracted King Fahd’s interest.

“We’re in the last car in the convoy and all of a sudden our car veers out and starts going out of the city,” Whitehead said.

The attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were barely 24 hours past, attacks pulled off by al-Qaida terrorists, most of whom were Saudis.

The day before, Whitehead was in his eighth-floor room in the Riyahd Palace Hotel at 4 p.m., local time, with the television on.

“I’ve got a mosque 50 yards away calling everyone to evening prayers when the second plane slammed into the towers,” he recalled. “Everyone was going crazy, people were just all excited. The Imams, the Muslim clerics, that we met with had said they didn’t want us there. They’d showed their disdain for the Americans coming and trying to change their education system.

“I was very afraid,” Whitehead said. “I was afraid if President Bush at the time decided to retaliate, we had no chance.”

The Americans, including professors from Stanford University and the University of West Virginia, hunkered down in their rooms that first night. By the next evening their Saudi hosts beckoned them to dinner at a restaurant that was cleared of other diners for the visitors’ protection.

Whitehead said the colonel, Bob Myers, was especially on edge. He had to be convinced to go along, only to discover when they reached the car they had a new driver.

“The guy, I swear, looked just like the al-Qaida guys on television,” Whitehead said.

When their car pulled out of the convoy, the tension ratcheted up. They were driven out of town along a desert highway. It was nearly dark, Whitehead said, but he could see a dark, 1980s-style Cadillac with tinted windows parked along the road ahead.

“I thought it had a flat tire or something. I’m looking at it and going, ‘Oh, that’s unfortunate,’” he said. “All of a sudden our driver started blinking his lights at the Cadillac, and it pulled out and we started to follow it.”

After 15 or 20 minutes, both cars pulled onto a dusty unpaved road. Myers let it be known that he was ready to jump out, even though the cars were speeding at 35-40 mph. Whitehead, who had once fallen out of a moving car while antelope hunting, knew the damage it could do. He convinced the colonel to stay put.

“Our plan was to jump the driver when he slowed down,” he said. “Now we’re following this Cadillac up into an arroyo, into a canyon. I won’t say we were yelling at the driver but we were pretty upset. All the driver would say is ‘lost, lost.’”

Then the driver’s cellphone went off. Whitehead said he knew enough Arabic to discern that whoever was on the other end was upset. At the same time, the brake lights on the Cadillac went on.

“I’m sitting here trying to keep the colonel from jumping, saying, 'No, it’s going to be OK,'” Whitehead said. Deep down, he added, “I thought my life was over.”

They watched as the Cadillac turned around and passed their car, which turned and followed it back down the lonely road.

“They drove us right back into the city and right to dinner,” Whitehead said.

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh was evacuated after the attack and many Saudis, if not dancing in the streets, were certainly gleeful, Whitehead said. That made the several-day wait to get a flight out of town all the more nerve-wracking. Whitehead remembers rigging his hotel room doorknob with a can of soda pop, so he would be awakened if someone tried to enter in the night. A vacuum cleaner kept appearing outside his door. Whitehead kept moving it to the other end of the hall.

The Americans finally made it to Athens, Greece, but had to wait there another week or so because international flights were still banned from landing in the United States.

Whitehead recalled flying out of JFK Airport in New York to Saudi Arabia on Sept. 6, an unusually clear day.

“The sunlight was actually playing off the (Twin) Towers,” he said.

When they returned on Sept. 22, the towers were still smoldering.

Lundt, Whitehead and Myers never heard why they were released in Riyadh that fateful night.

“The only thing our Saudi friends said was because we were invited by the king,” Whitehead said. “We had been on Al Jazeera TV. So we think it was because it would have been an embarrassing situation for the king at that time.”

Their time in Saudi Arabia was chronicled by the Missoulian a few weeks later, but the Missoula travelers left out the part about the abduction. Whitehead said they feared jeopardizing UM’s new relationship with the Saudis.

“They were still interested in doing the program,” Whitehead said.

A return visit to Missoula by an assistant minister of education and his family was thwarted at the Riyadh airport. Whitehead said he heard it was because the man's name was similar to that of an al-Qaida member on the U.S. terrorist list.

“There was a potential for millions of dollars for the university, but it didn’t get done,” he said.

On Tuesday Whitehead dropped off a different book he’s just revised, the fifth edition of “Curriculum Leadership,” a highly praised go-to text for college curriculum directors.

As for the Saudis: “To my knowledge they’re moving ahead but the educational system is not. Some of their private schools are now using the technology, but they’re having the same issues they did before.

“That was the sad thing for me,” Whitehead said. “There was the potential of being able to change the educational system not only in Saudi Arabia but in Egypt and Jordan and other places.

“It would have made a huge difference, and a lot of that change would have been based on change that was very similar to what Missoula was doing with technology at the time.”

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian