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MANCHESTER, Tenn. — Calling it “very suspicious,” Rep. Bob Clement, D-Tenn., suggested the hijacking and crash of a Greyhound bus in southern middle Tennessee would require more investigation before any connection to the Sept. 11 Islamic terrorist attacks could be ruled out.
The incident, which occurred on Interstate 24 near Manchester, Tennessee, took the lives of at least six passengers, but that number has fluctuated throughout the day from as few as four to as many as 10, and conflicting statements have snowballed across the state as the day has progressed.
According to passenger Carly Rinearson, speaking to Nashville’s CBS affiliate WTVF via her cell phone from the crash site some 30 miles south of Nashville, a man, apparently in his mid-30s and speaking in a foreign accent, requested her front row seat several times as the bus made its way towards Atlanta, Ga. He also requested that several other passengers exchange seats with him, but they also refused.
The man appeared to frequently check his watch and then, according to Rinearson and confirmed by Coffee County, Tenn., medical examiner Al Brandon, he approached the driver, slit his throat and then grabbed the steering wheel, forcing the bus into the oncoming lanes before tipping over and coming to rest on an embankment across the interstate. Brandon told authorities that the driver managed to crawl out a window and flag down traffic for assistance. The attacker was allegedly thrown through the windshield and died.
Originating in Chicago, the bus made stops in Indianapolis, Ind., Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., according to Kristen Parsley, a spokesperson for Greyhound. The incident caused Greyhound to shut down its nationwide schedule of 1900-plus bus routes for several hours on Wednesday, but by 1 p.m. Eastern, the Greyhound fleet was back in operation.
But as the day passed, questions continue to surface. Still at issue is the number of fatalities. MSNBC and CNN are reporting six deaths, while the Vanderbilt Medical Center, one of three facilities treating the majority of the wounded, announced 10 fatalities. WTVF in Nashville originally accepted Vanderbilt’s count, but has now changed its numbers to “at least six.” A Tennessee Highway Patrol officer told WND, “We basically don’t know what’s going on other than what’s on the television.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the FBI were called in to assess whether the crash may have been terrorist-connected. The Knoxville, Tenn., FBI office provided the agents, although the Nashville and Chattanooga field offices were both closer.
Further complicating the issue for Clement, son of former Tennessee governor Frank Clement, is the fact that the alleged assailant carried a Croatian passport. Clement told WTVF that he had spoken to both the TBI and the FBI and considered the situation “very suspicious,” implying statements by Justice Department officials that the incident was the ”result of an isolated act by a single deranged individual” was something of a rush to judgment.
The identity of the attacker has not been released, merely the fact that he carried a Croatian passport. The national press, including CNN and MSNBC, have cast the incident as probably separate from the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the U.S. However, many Croats are Muslim and Osama bin Laden did provide both money and manpower for fighting in the region some years ago.
Muddying the water even more is the fact that just Tuesday night, WTVF reported that the FBI had tracked a bin Laden contact, one Zafer al-Atasi, to Nashville. “Atasi is a 32-year-old Saudi Arabian national who, until a few short months ago, lived in Nashville,” said Dana Keeton, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Public Safety. NewsChannel 5 reported that Atasi’s drivers license gave his address at the Lexington Apartments on Old Hickory Boulevard in Bellevue. He had left the apartment, however, and had left no forwarding address.
“That license was suspended in August of this year for unpaid traffic citations. The majority of those three or four minor traffic violations occurred in Davidson County. A couple occurred in Haywood County,” concluded Keeton, in comments to WTVF Tuesday night. According to that same report, Atasi was in federal custody as of Tuesday night. Although there is no confirmed link at this time between Islamic terrorists and the Greyhound bus crash, no possibilities are being discounted either, said a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Public Safety: “At this juncture, nothing can be taken for granted.”
Echoing Clement’s hesitation to ascribe this to a single act by a deranged person was Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Larry Wallace. In a press conference earlier today, Wallace told reporters, “This was more than an accident, but to say it was terrorist-related, I cannot and will not do that.” He wouldn’t elaborate on whether the suspect is of Croatian descent, as was reported by Clement to WTVF earlier. Wallace also noted that the ID might not be authentic.
At present, both the FBI and TBI are continuing to pursue leads and, according to TBI sources, are looking for possible connections between the bus hijacker and Zafer Al-Atasi.