Digital destruction was worst imaginable

For several tense hours on Sept. 11, the United States was deaf, dumb and blind due to the “absolutely massive” loss of communications infrastructure resulting from the collapse of the World Trade Center, a senior U.S. government official said last week.

While those losses pale in comparison to the human tragedy, federal and industry officials for the first time painted a frightening picture of what the terrorist attacks did to the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure that fateful day and revealed just how fragile the nation’s economic digital backbone can be.

According to officials at the homeland security conference in Washington, D.C., last week, sponsored by the Fairfax, Virginia-based Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York inflicted severe damage on one of the most critical telecommunications nodes in the country: the main regional switching center operated by Verizon Communications at 140 West St., adjacent to World Trade Center 7, which collapsed.

The resulting devastation was “the most significant challenge that the National Communications System had ever seen,” said Brenton Greene, deputy manager at the National Communications System (NCS), which is responsible for all the major telecommunications networks that have national security significance.

In addition to the immediate wireless circuit overload, the collapse of the towers sent a massive steel beam slicing through a bundle of critical fibre cables buried eight feet below ground, destroying more than 4 million high-speed access lines and rupturing water lines that filled underground switching vaults with more than 10 million gallons of water.

The damage knocked out 1.5 million circuits that served the financial district, threatening the country’s economic stability, said Greene.

The Verizon facility housed enough equipment to make it the “most communications-intensive area in the U.S.,” said Bruce Fleming, divisional technology officer at New York-based Verizon.

That fact wasn’t lost on the Bush administration, Greene said. Once emergency response and rescue efforts were given the support they required, the White House ordered Greene to make restoring Wall St. connectivity the next priority.

Restoring the Verizon backbone, however, would require a virtual army of federal and industry technicians. Primary power had been lost, and backup power, which was running on diesel fuel generators, began to fade quickly.

Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J., one of Verizon’s main systems providers, rushed a 100,000-line switch to the scene to replace another massive switch that had been sent crashing through the window of the Verizon building. The company also put all of its customer requirements on hold and made its entire inventory available to rescue services, said Greg Butler, a Verizon vice-president who coordinated incident response efforts.

In addition to the damage incurred by Verizon, at least 139 fibre rings in surrounding buildings and 26 building-specific fibre rings failed, said Dick Price, vice-president of field operations at WorldCom Inc.

“From a macro level, our national security should be a major part of our telecommunications policy,” said Fleming. “If it can happen, it hasn’t happened yet.”