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Trade Center security chief thought dead

By Richard Esposito
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- John O’Neill retired last month as the FBI's counterterrorism head to become chief of security at the World Trade Center, where he is believed to have died on Tuesday helping with rescue efforts. He was 49.

O'Neill was a three-decade FBI veteran. He led the bureau's investigation of the October 12, 2000, terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and was involved in the terrorism trials led by Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

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After contemplating retirement for a year or more, O'Neill took the World Trade Center job with Silverstein Properties in August.

In April, the Port Authority granted a 99-year lease of the twin towers and four other buildings to Silverstein for an estimated $3.2 billion.

The deal -- which allowed Silverstein to manage the complex and collect rent -- was said by the Port Authority to be the most expensive real estate transaction in New York history.

O'Neill "started as a clerk in ’72, became an agent in ’76," said retired FBI agent Warren Flagg, O'Neill's former partner. "The man knew his business, conducted it well. It is hard to believe he might be gone."

O’Neill came to New York to head intelligence for the FBI about a year after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

O’Neill had dinner and drinks Monday with a leading expert on terrorism devices and two friends whose firms build many Broadway stage sets.

"As he was walking out the door of the restaurant," recalled scenery builder Fred Gallo, "he turned and said, 'Well, at least the city never suffered a terror attack during the seven years of my watch.'"

O’Neill was last heard from shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday when he called into one of the emergency command centers to say he was OK. The first of two jetliners slammed into the center at 8:45 a.m.

Flagg and other investigators speculated that O’Neill ran back into the damaged structure, as did many in the command structure of New York's fire, police and rescue community.

Hundreds of firefighters, emergency workers, police officers and Port Authority officers are missing and believed dead.

O'Neill's FBI career was not without controversy. During his investigation of the USS Cole attack, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine is said to have complained the FBI was overly aggressive.

At one point, the agency pulled O'Neill and his team out of Yemen amid fears of terrorist attacks on the investigators.

As O'Neill retired from the FBI last month, he was said to be under investigation for leaving a briefcase with classified documents in a Tampa, Florida, hotel last year. The documents were recovered.

O'Neill's former partner said he has all too accurate a feeling for what New York's recovery and investigation workers face this week.

"I worked on the [TWA] Flight 800 case, and the carnage from one plane was enough for me for a lifetime," Flagg said. "The horror from four planes -- let alone the towers -- is beyond my comprehension."

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