Verizon Fights to Reconnect New York

 
 
By Paul Coe Clark III  |  Posted 2001-09-12
 
 
 

Verizon Communications, the incumbent carrier for New York and most of the Eastern Seaboard, struggled today to restore service to Manhattan after the World Trade Center attacks damaged two central offices near the former site of the towers. The carrier apparently lost several employees in the attack.

Verizon had 488 employees at the World Trade Center at the time of the attack. Most escaped safely, but three or four technical workers on higher floors used cell phones to report that they were attempting to climb toward the roof after the attack. They are now missing.

"We have not heard from those employees, and, obviously, theyre presumed dead," Vice Chairman Larry Babbio, president of Verizons telecom group, told reporters yesterday, his voice breaking.

All Verizon local traffic in lower Manhattan flows through the two COs, one at 140 West St., almost adjacent to 7 World Trade Center, the smaller building in the center that was destroyed, and one nearby on Broad Street. The West Street facility serves about 200,000 lines and the data equivalent of 3 million private lines. Both COs were damaged in the attack, with the West Street office particularly hard hit, taking steel I-beams through the building in several places. Both buildings were without power this afternoon, but Verizon and city officials were working to restore it.

About 20 percent of the lines in the West Street building could be rerouted, and the rest are out of service. The Broad Street office feeds about 80 percent of the private lines for the New York Stock Exchange.

The two buildings serve the communications needs of "probably the most telecom-intensive area in the world," Babbio said.

The two buildings are part of a network of 19 Verizon offices serving 2 million lines in Manhattan. Five of the offices, including the two damaged ones, are below Union Square at 14th Street and serve a half-million lines south of that street.

The West Street office is one of the few buildings still standing in the World Trade Center complex, said Babbio, who had just returned from the building. It has five levels of basement, all but the top of which are flooded with water mixed with oil and are inaccessible, he said.

"At the time we were there, we were in about a foot of water," Babbio said. "Obviously, if cable gets wet service get interrupted."

Commercial power to the building has been cut, but Verizon execs hope to get generated power to it sometime today.

The central office, as Babbio described it, resembled something out of a war zone. "We literally have steel beams coming through the basement and one or two other floors," he said.

"It is very difficult to see, first, and second, very difficult to breathe," Babbio said. "And when you come to the equipment, its covered with soot. The extent of the work we have to do today is enormous."

The West Street office is not capable of providing service to the lines running through it, but that loss is mostly academic now, Babbio said. Most of the businesses and homes in the area have been closed, and almost no activity, other than rescue efforts, is taking place near the trade center, he said.

"I think the number of people who are open for business in that area is 1 percent, if that much," he said.

Repairs to the building may be academic in another way: getting the switching gear working will only begin the process of discovering how many lines are out because of underground shock or flooding damage. In Manhattan, of course, all lines are run through underground conduit, and much of the equipment is also underground. All that infrastructure has suffered "the equivalent of small earthquakes underground," Babbio said.

The area below 14th Street remained closed today - a ghost town housing the shell of Americas financial center, whose streets teemed only with rescue workers.

Verizon took extraordinary efforts to turn its network to public use during the crisis. The carrier provided hundreds of additional lines for Bellevue and St. Vincents Hospitals, the New York Police Department and other emergency centers. It also reconfigured its 4,000 Manhattan payphones to provide free calls to anywhere in New York City. It also set them to accept incoming calls, something they normally cant do. Verizon Wireless also made a half-million wireless handsets available.

In Washington, phone service at the damaged Pentagon remained relatively normal. There were reports of fire in the building, as there was in the West Street central office, and Babbio said it was possible that the fire could spread to switching equipment in the Pentagon. "We are covering it, we are trying to contain it, and as of a few minutes ago, we had it under control," he said.

Verizon had about 40 employees at the Pentagon, all of whom were reportedly safe.

Many carriers on the East Coast continued to report higher-than-normal traffic rates today.

Sprint Communications reported congestion in the New York area today. Last night, it was also reporting congestion around Washington, but that congestion has cleared up.

Wireless networks remained congested, and outages continued around metropolitan New York. Sprint lost four PCS cell sites in the immediate disaster area, and service through other sites across Manhattan remained out because of power outages. Also, some of the Sprint sites had lost landline connections from Verizon or other carriers

"Our first priority is to restore service and we are exercising all measures to do so -- working with various carriers and government authorities," Sprint executives said in a release.

Verizon reported 10 cell sites out in southern Manhattan. The carrier had replaced seven sites in New York and New Jersey, and had lost two more in Washington and one outside Pittsburgh.

The primary problem with the wireless network continued to be high calling volumes -- between 50 and 100 percent more traffic than normal, according to Verizon execs.

Other telecom carriers chipped in to help during the crisis. HickoryTech, a Minnesota-based long-distance carrier, made all calls to New York City and Washington toll-free through midnight tonight. AT&T said it would donate $1 million to the American Red Cross to support relief efforts in New York and Washington, and another $100,000 to match employee donations. AT&T will provide free long-distance service from all payphones in the affected areas of New York.

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