Get IT Done: IT pro's BlackBerry saved anguish during NYC attack

Disaster recovery should include both a policy and the technical means to overcome communication obstacles

I was en route to Jersey City, NJ, at 8:50 A.M. on Sept. 11, 2001. A colleague from a partner company and I were attempting to make a sales call to a client who was just over the river from Manhattan. Crossing the bridge from the city, I noticed that one of the towers of the World Trade Center was on fire, and the world changed forever in the blink of an eye.

By the time we made it to the client site, both towers were in flames. After paying a brief visit to the client to assure them that we understood why they were canceling the meeting, we began to wonder how to get back home through this mess. That’s when we felt the rumble of the earth shaking as the first tower fell before our eyes. For five full minutes, two guys who get paid to talk couldn’t say a single word.

TechRepublic is deeply saddened by the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Our thoughts and prayers go to the victims and their loved ones. If you'd like to help, here are just a few of the relief organizations you can contact:
American Red Cross
United Way of New York
September 11th Fund
NY Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund
Salvation Army

Thoughts of getting home flew from our minds as we reached for cell phones to try to locate our family, friends, and coworkers. Both of us knew people who should have been in the area—or worse, in the WTC buildings—during the time of the attacks. But it was no use. Soon, the second tower had collapsed as well, and with the towers went the telecommunications transmitters and transceivers that sat on top of them. Even as the carriers switched over to backup systems, the onslaught of people trying to make calls crippled the system well into the next day in areas around the city.

That’s when I got a message on my BlackBerry wireless device—a friend asking if I was okay and if I was near ground zero. Within minutes, I had fired off messages to all my friends, coworkers, and family, either trying to find out where they were or telling them where I was and assuring them that I was fine, although shaken and in shock.

The CEO of my company called out for all field personnel to check in with him immediately so that we could find out where everyone was. Since none of our phones worked, this would have been impossible had it not been for the wireless e-mail. As my colleague tried in vain to reach field friends at his company, I was receiving answers from my coworkers telling me that they were all right and were not near the center of the attacks.

However, with a field crew scheduled to be at meetings in both attack locations (New York City and Washington, DC), there was a very tense hour or so when we thought we might have lost someone at one of the two locations. It was only after the CEO confirmed that all field personnel were accounted for that we finally breathed a sigh of relief. This reassurance would have been impossible—or at the very least, would have taken several more hours—had the wireless e-mail services gone down in the middle of the fray as the cellular systems had.

Thankfully, through the entire disaster, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry services were down only intermittently, for a few minutes at a time, so we could all keep in touch with folks at computers as well as other BlackBerry users in the field. When my colleague and I were both fairly certain that our friends were okay, we finally started the long journey home.

Since my company is involved in disaster recovery solutions for businesses, being able to stay in communication with coworkers and clients was a blessing during this catastrophic turn of events. We were able to reassure our customers that the company was safe and ready to assist them and that we could deploy our personnel as needed to satisfy that goal. I must commend Research In Motion and its partner companies for creating a system that could withstand a disaster like this. BlackBerry services proved themselves a vital and beneficial part of our business technology.

My heart and thoughts go out to those who lost loved ones to this tragedy and to those who are still searching for family and friends. I know that what I experienced in my brief couple of hours of noncommunication is only a small fraction of the agony they must be going through right now.

One ray of hope shone through this tragedy, and once again, it would have been impossible without the BlackBerry services up and working. A mass e-mail was sent from a coworker in California. Through all the darkness and pain that day had brought, his message lit up all our lives. Its subject was simple: “She’s here!” Its message was a gift: His baby girl had been born that afternoon.

How did technology help or hinder you during the NYC attacks?
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