US ATTACK: Internet holds up after terrorist attacks

The terrorist attacks that leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and destroyed a section of the Pentagon have shocked a nation still counting the death toll. In the rush to contact family, friends or business associates in the aftermath of the terrorist events, people are finding phone lines jammed but the Internet a more reliable form of communications.

That's the firsthand view of some working in Manhattan not far from the World Trade Center buildings, which once housed 1,200 businesses with 50,000 workers, but are now a pile of rubble, having collapsed in flame early Tuesday morning, struck kamikaze-style by commercial airplanes hijacked by unknown terrorists.

"My view is directly at the World Trade Center buildings, and I watched them go down," said Gary Fries, president and CEO of the Radio Advertising Bureau, whose office is on 38th St. and Madison Avenue, on the 23rd floor.

Fries watched in horror as the twin towers fell. Then he immediately reached for the phone to call his wife in Colorado and had no trouble getting through. But he found he couldn't call across town. Cell phone communications didn't work.

And within a short time, all phone communications were impossible, the circuits unavailable as frantic callers tried to make contact with family, friends and business associates. "There was just no way to talk to anyone," said Fries, shaken from the tragedy he witnessed.

Fries himself had a business meeting scheduled for that morning, and he found the only way to reach the people he had planned to meet was through Internet e-mail. Fries also found he could make use of his company's Dallas-based Web server. By the end of Tuesday, phone communications had improved, but it was the Internet that had proven to be the more reliable communications method during the hours following the massive and unprecedented terrorist attack.

For attorney Mark Milone, who works at a midtown law firm, the experience with communications networks was somewhat similar that day.

"I first saw the smoke and dust upon exiting the 53rd Street F train station at 5th Avenue at approximately 9:15 a.m.," said Milone. "At that time, people were standing on the sidewalk talking about a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center. Some people were muttering about 'terrorist attacks,' but no one was certain."

Milone immediately tried to call his family from his cell phone but the network was busy. After walking to his office, Milone immediately turned on his computer to access his e-mail and the Internet. "The phone only worked intermittently," said Milone. To get information, Milone said he had the idea of accessing New York's "traffic cams" on the Internet and saw some of the destruction in lower Manhattan.

"At some point, my building issued a terrorist alert and a security guard came to my office to tell us to keep our eyes peeled for anything suspicious," Milone said.

Milone turned to the Internet to find instructions on how he might leave Manhattan, and through the Cyberia discussion list he was able to contact other New Yorkers and learn that people were walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. Most of New York's subway trains and other transportation had been shut down.

Milone ended up going to a friend's house. "I've got to tell you, this whole experience reaffirms my belief in the superiority of the Internet as a means of mass communication," Milone states. "My office phone was of limited help. Television and radio only gave me a small amount of the information I was looking for -- that is, how to get out of Manhattan -- and was no help in contacting loved ones."

Some wireless phone users posted angry messages at discussion lists about Verizon's apparent lack of network capacity to handle the high volumes of phone calls. Long-distance carriers, including AT&T and Sprint, have acknowledged network congestion and disruptions across the eastern seaboard, with Sprint specifically noting it had circuits and switches for 23 T-3 lines in the basement of the now-destroyed World Trade Center.

Of the many businesses that occupied the World Trade Center, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter is known to be the largest single tenant, having used about one-eighth of the twin towers' office space. Lehman Brothers and American Express are also headquartered there. An official death count from the terrorist attack in New York and the Pentagon was not available early Tuesday evening.

The New York Stock Exchange, which is half a mile from the World Trade Center, has delayed trading indefinitely, as has the NASDAQ, Chicago's Mercantile Exchange, among other stock exchanges. The New York Board of Trade said its backup facility on Long Island isn't expected to resume business until Monday at the earliest.

Calls to the AMEX and NASDAQ media offices were not returned, but according to some Tuesday evening news reports, officials from the stock exchanges are expected to make a joint announcement on Wednesday morning about the condition of the exchanges.

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