The Day the World Changed in a Flash
Most people learned of the World Trade Center attacks from television reports or from news Web sites. I found out without any help from technology: I looked out the window of my subway car. At 9:07 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11 — less than one minute after the second plane slammed into the south tower — my train from Brooklyn was diverted to go over the Manhattan Bridge, which offers stunning vistas of downtown New York City. A woman screamed and pointed. Everyone in the subway car pressed against the windows, staring at the smoking gashes in the citys two tallest towers. The train conductor came on the intercom: "Because the World Trade Center is on fire, there is no downtown train service." No one knew what had caused it at that point, but we all knew it could only be a terrorist attack.
All I could think about was getting off the train as soon as possible. At 28th Street, I headed for Interactive Weeks offices — about three miles uptown from the World Trade Center buildings — and heard on a parked vans radio that the Pentagon had been hit by an explosion as well. In our office buildings lobby, TVs tuned to CNN reported that two jetliners had hit the towers. Upstairs, the Web was of no use: All the news sites were jammed. Outside on the 13th floor balcony of the Ziff Davis Media building, dozens gathered to watch in silent disbelief as the buildings burned. "How can they possibly put those fires out?" one of my colleagues asked. Soon we saw the first tower collapse. Gone. Then the second tower fell. Unbelievable. Its unbelievable still. Watching the Twin Towers erased from the New York skyline is not an image any of us will soon forget.
I saw many Manhattan workers, their cell phones useless, standing in lines 12 or 15 people deep at pay phones to call their families to assure them they were all right. Everyone around me tried to get home as quickly as they could, staying out of the way of ambulances and fire trucks that were speeding the wrong way down the avenues. Back in Brooklyn at 11 p.m. after a long wait for a subway train that arrived full of pale, tired and nervous people, I could see and smell smoke wafting through the air. Cars were covered with a light layer of ash.
Not Just Another Trade Show
Like many other Internet publishing companies, Ziff Davis Media last week had a crew of editors in Atlanta for the NetWorld+Interop show. Tuesday morning, would-be booth browsers were fixated on finding a working television or a functioning news site, instead of paying attention to the new products and services debuting at the show. One of the more realistic media relations reps admitted she was really glad her company didnt have a major announcement trying to compete for the attention of people held rapt by the suicide bombings. The Georgia World Congress Center eventually did release some of the TV screens from the interminable keynote address loops before shooing everyone off the trade show floor by noon, leaving many to mull how they were going to get home. Members of our news team piled into a bus bound for New York, a van headed to Texas and California, and rental cars headed to Chicago, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The New York crew was joined by a group of gear makers who reportedly bribed their way onto the bus with beer. For those who stayed behind, the hotels did their best to extend true hospitality. In the shopping mecca of Buckhead, all the malls were closed, but the staff at the Ritz-Carlton, worried about a handful of guests who werent allowed to claim their luggage at Hartsfield Airport, made a quick run to a Target store up the road for underwear.
Technologic Partners was holding the second day of its annual Internet Outlook conference on Sept. 11 at a San Francisco airport hotel. The first panel of the day, scheduled to start at 8 a.m., included Cisco Systems Chief Information Officer Pete Solvik as a panelist. Events were still unfolding at 7:45 a.m., as the panelists were assembling to speak before a nearly deserted room. Like every other American, Solvik was overwhelmed by the events, and said he didnt want to participate. But Dick Shaffer, Technologics principal and founder, talked him into participating, saying how important it was to continue — to not let horrific events stop our lives. The panel went on. As a side note, the panel was originally scheduled to include Chuck Phillips, managing director of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. But at the last minute, Im told, Chuck had to change his plans and stay in New York. Happy to report that Chuck is fine. His office is near Wall Street, but not in the World Trade Center, as was the case for many other Morgan Stanley employees.
Delta Air Lines Flight 775 is not one of the call signs people will remember from the Sept. 11 catastrophe. And it shouldnt be. The biggest problem on that 8 a.m. flight from New Yorks LaGuardia International Airport to Atlanta was a hydraulic brake leak that forced the plane to stay on the tarmac, with its passengers still inside — including one of our reporters — for an hour-long delay. But around 8:55 a.m., soon after the pilot reported the problem was fixed and he was preparing for takeoff, an eerie sound began to permeate the cabin. Mobile phones. First one, then two, then 20, began going off like alarm bells. Our reporters phone was in the off position because he was expecting the cabin door to close at any moment. Then other sounds began moving through the cabin: murmurs from passenger to passenger about plane crashes and the World Trade Center. No one was really sure what happened, he recalls. Most thought some small, two-seater Cessna accidentally crashed into it. Soon, the pilot announced no plane would be taking off from LaGuardia, and asked the passengers to return to the gate area. News was frustratingly slow coming in. "Barely anyone could get a call out on his or her mobile phone anymore," he says. "And for some strange reason, the televisions around the airport — which usually show the CNN Airport Network 24/7 — were blank, with a strange text message at the bottom of the screen that I cant recall." After calling his editor to say he wouldnt be getting to Atlanta for the NetWorld+Interop tech show, he noticed the bank of pay phones. "It was then I realized the gravity of the situation. The pay phones werent only tied up, there were lines for each one." In a cab leaving the airport, he told the driver to put on a local radio station in time to hear that the Twin Towers had been hit. "I looked over at Manhattan to watch the skyline — the same skyline Id admired on the ride to the airport just that morning as the sun came up to illuminate two huge overwhelming structures — just as the hulking Tower 1 came crashing down, replaced by a plume of dust and rubble," he remembers. "Finally, a call came through to my mobile phone. Yes, I was fine. But there were a lot of people who werent."
The day after the attacks, people in New York were scarce on the streets and traffic was almost nonexistent. It might have been Labor Day, when most New Yorkers leave the concrete canyons for the beaches. Some went about their business as normally as possible — getting their morning coffee and bagels — but most heeded the call by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to stay home, as rescue workers tried to clear the damage and locate survivors. Back on the nearly empty 13th floor of the Ziff Davis Media building, the network zipped along faster than usual — with hardly anyone else around to clog it up. My cell phone worked fine. Out in the street, I could see the plume of gray smoke that still rose over lower Manhattan. Otherwise, it appeared to be another sunny, beautiful fall day. Only, it really wasnt.