In the months following the Sept. 11 attacks on America, New York City and its people were in the national spotlight. For the men and women who repaired, created and managed the information technology systems that provided the city with critical emergency services, it began with a Tuesday morning that will be forever imprinted on the nation's memory.
"There are a thousand stories out there about 'where were you when the first plane hit,'" said Brian Cohen, New York City's former deputy commissioner for the Office of Technology and E-Government. Cohen was on his way to work and was temporarily trapped in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. He rushed to ground zero and had to run for safety as the first tower collapsed. His car was buried in the rubble and never found. "We had a hard time breathing," he recalled. "It was like a war zone, cars exploding all over the place, ashes five inches thick. It was dark, like walking through an eclipse."
Into the Fire
At the same time, Avi Duvdevani was at MetroTech, the city's highly secure IT facility adjacent to the New York Fire Department, embarking on a new job as acting commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). "For me, there were very strong feelings. The letter that announced my appointment was dated Sept. 11," he said. "I have this letter in my hand and then the world blows up. I felt obligated to the mayor to step up."
MetroTech, sitting at the foot of two bridges in Brooklyn, supports New York's multiprotocol network with over 3,000 terminals and 120 business critical application systems for finance, criminal justice and its Web portal. From this location, Duvdevani and his staff could look across the East River and watch the smoke billowing from the remains of the World Trade Center.
Because of extensive work done prior to Y2K, the city was positioned to use its technology infrastructure and to implement emergency measures. Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota said the IT team had drilled through tabletop exercises using a variety of emergency scenarios. "We knew exactly what to do if the world came to an end on Jan. 1, 2000," he said. "When you plan for things, you remember them."
A consortium of communication companies had been involved in theY2K preparation process and, on Sept. 11, was called to action. Consequently, when Verizon's communication center near the towers was severely damaged and service to 50,000 phones was lost, the city knew where to look for alternatives. Without those Y2K meetings, Lhota believes the situation could have been dire. "We could not have known that we could go to a cable company and get telephony," he said. Cell phone services were also critically impacted, as antennas and equipment installed on top of the towers went down with the buildings.
A Beautiful Portal Lost
While Duvdevani worked to restore phone service to the core of the city, staff in the Office of New Media scrambled to keep the city's Web site up with relevant content. Diane Witek, managing director of the Office of New Media, said she rushed to the MetroTech building and, not bothering to take her coat off, marched into the content manager's office for a status report. She said traffic issues were an immediate priority. Shortly after that, the provider of the T1 line to DoITT's server, located near the World Trade Center, went down. A temporary HTML page was quickly created.
"Our beautiful portal look was gone," Witek remembered, "and it was straight text that was serving this emergency information." The text format, however, proved useful and much quicker to use than graphic-laden pages. Witek created a form to smooth the flow of donations to the city. The system administration staff worked to create a common interface for