Clouds of smoke rise from fires at the World Trade Center Towers.
We also served
September 11, 2001
By Dennis Fecci
Editor’s Note: On September 11, 2001, Dennis Fecci was the Deputy Commissioner/Chief Information Officer for New York City’s Department of Human Resources, its social services organization. Fecci supervised approximately 750 technical staff, providing and enhancing technology infrastructure and computer applications supporting business requirements of all divisions within the agency. This is an excerpt from his report for the New York World Trade Center Oral History Project.
September 11, 2001, like many other Tuesdays, began with a phone call.
At 8:46 a.m., the caller screamed, “Oh, my God, a plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
I ran from my office and saw smoke emanating from One World Trade Center, the North Tower.
About 9:03 a.m., the second plane hit Two World Trade Center, the South Tower. Those watching knew now it wasn’t an accident but an attack. I always see this when I think about September 11, 2001. I always will.
Chaos ensued. Some of my calls to obtain intelligence were answered, but no one had information. Many calls went unanswered.
About 9:59 a.m., I saw the South Tower collapse. At 10:28 a.m., the North Tower followed.
Never did we think a building—let alone the World Trade Center—anywhere in the United States would be felled by a terrorist attack. We grieved in our helplessness.
HRA had several facilities in the area surrounding the World Trade Center, including its headquarters. I determined to access the damage to rapidly bring those facilities back online.
Approaching Ground Zero, I saw piles of concrete, metal and glass several stories high. When the planes hit, they impacted with tremendous force, projecting pieces of the buildings outward in a 360-degree radius with a velocity like that of hundreds of cannon shots.
Smoke drifted in the air. More prominent was the dust, which appeared like a snowfall. Each time a first responder moved some debris—sometimes with bare hands—to search for survivors, more dust emerged.
Many had hard hats but no one had breathing safety devices. I saw someone had raised an American flag.
Later, I spoke to some first responders. Their words ached with futility and their emotions were filled with pain, grief and sorrow. A few cried.
I worked in lower Manhattan for 30 years. I saw the World Trade Center being built. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I saw the twin towers collapse, leaving a monstrous pile of rubble.
HRA MIS was asked to assist in the technical World Trade Center recovery operation.
We called upon our many experiences in completing computer and network installations within restrictive timeframes and under less-than-ideal conditions. Staff responded with extraordinary motivation, working long hours and performing tasks professionally and competently without a single complaint.
The city’s Emergency Operations Center, “The Bunker,” 7 World Trade Center, was unusable, leaving the city essentially blind. The Office of Emergency
Management (OEM) asked HRA to build a new emergency management site.
At 9 p.m., a 50-PC station local area network was established to create a temporary command center at the Police Academy Library and was fully operational by 2 a.m. The task was completed in nine hours
By 10 a.m., chaos reigned. Two hundred people were trying to access 50 computer terminals in a room too small for even those 50 people.
OEM found a new site at Pier 92, in the Hudson River, and specified 200 computer terminals and 300 telephones were needed. At noon, we conducted a survey of the empty site, void of fixtures, furniture and with minimal power capabilities. A build plan was quickly formulated.
The General Services agency would provide tables, chairs, rugs and office supplies. Consolidated Edison would provide power. Verizon would provide connectivity for voice and data to the outside world.
OEM’s commissioner asked me when the equipment would be installed. I told him, “In the morning.” He asked, “What morning?” I said, “Tomorrow morning.”
He stared in disbelief.
By 2 p.m., trucks delivered all the PC terminals, network communication equipment, fiber optic cable and printers from my storerooms.
By 4 p.m., technicians began laying cables for the PC terminals and telephones. We called vendor partners. The response was immediate and overwhelming.
We asked our cable pulling contractors to send all available staff. They did. We asked Cisco for telecommunications switches and routers. The needed equipment arrived promptly. We asked Nortel (now Avaya) for a PBX, a computer that controls telephones. Nortel diverted a PBX designated for a private customer, loaded it on a truck that was escorted to Pier 92 by law enforcement personnel.
By 6 p.m., there were approximately 100 city and private technicians working through the night. All agencies and vendors performed spectacularly.
By 6 a.m., the installation was complete and the temporary command center operational.
By 8 a.m., personnel were shown to terminals designated for their respective agencies. As each machine was turned on, the HRA logo appeared. In my 30 years as a city employee, this was my proudest moment, filling me with admiration for the HRA MIS staff who accomplished this feat.
HRA MIS next was asked to build a Family Assistance Center (FAC) at Pier 94. It would be a facility where all pertinent services could be accessed by families trying to identify victims and receive assistance.
The FAC was staffed by employees of the NYPD, the NYC Medical Examiner’s Office, NYC HRA Programs, the Red Cross and more wonderful private sector organizations than I can remember.
After working around the clock Sept. 15 and 16, the FAC opened 8 a.m., Monday, Sept. 17, with a 350-PC network and a 400-telephone system, linked to the PBX and servers installed at Pier 92.
Families could call relatives anywhere in the world and had unlimited internet access.
Family Assistance Center
During the early days of operation of the Family Assistance Center, HRA MIS staff, with assistance the private sector, automated the NYPD’s missing person report.
The FAC immediately became the epicenter for assistance to the victims’ families. Approximately 150 staff from HRA’s programs worked tirelessly to authorize emergency benefits to victims’ families.
During the week of Sept. 17, an imaging application for the Medical Examiner’s Office was built by HRA MIS and the FileNET Corporation (now a division of IBM). This system captured and matched information related to victims’ identities.
Although staff working at the FAC was extremely busy, it was a place where expressions of grief and suffering from victims’ relatives broke the normal sound of business, resulting in momentary, eerie silences of shared compassion.
Donations from the public were not only valuable but also boosted morale. Typical of the outpouring, on our first night on Pier 92, four men appeared, uninvited, rolling food carts. A nearby restaurant had sent 200 dinners. I told them we had about 100 staff. He said they’d bring only 100 breakfasts in the morning.
Hundreds of people queued at local hospitals to donate blood for survivors. Ambulances from the tristate area lined up along the closed West Side Highway waiting to transport survivors to hospitals. Alas, they were few. Likewise, the United States Navy hospital ship Comfort was utilized mainly to give staff a rest.
Little publicity has been given to the scores of private boats that ferried horrified citizens across the Hudson River to New Jersey—more than were transported at Dunkirk.
In April 1995, New York City first responders were the initial out-of-state personnel to help in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Within days of the 2001 attack, the children of Oklahoma sent thousands of stuffed animals to Pier 94 for children of victims.
Hundreds of handmade posters were sent to Pier 94 from all over the world to adorn the walls. Someone sent a thousand origami cranes. More than 10,000 Red
Cross volunteers cycled through Pier 94 to assist. Teams of volunteer lawyers and healthcare professionals were onsite to advise victims’ families. The ASPCA cared for hundreds of animals.
If there is a silver lining from the 9/11 attack, it is the outpouring of support and sentiment that ensued, coupled with massive donations and millions of dollars donated for victims’ families.
We Also Served
No city could have been prepared for a disaster of the magnitude of 9/11. The way NYC managed the recovery now is used as a model for other governments.
The heroism of the New York City Police Department, the New York City Fire Department and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is well known.
Three-hundred and forty-three firefighters and 71 law enforcement officers—true heroes—gave their lives trying to save others. Their sacrifice is remembered with honor.
HRA MIS are not qualified first responders, but we are qualified to build and operate computer systems. To call us heroes, as some have implied, diminishes the heroism and sacrifice of the first responders.
We just did our job.
Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan, One World Trade Center, is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the third-tallest building in the world.
Virgil is quoted in Memorial Hall, National 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.