I remember September 11th, 2001, very well. I was sitting in my expensive office chair, doing a lot of nothing. A friend of mine called me and said simply, "Turn on the news." I turned on the TV just in time to see the second tower fall. It's useless to describe the sorrowful astonishment I and every stable, mature person in the US felt that day. If you were an adult then (and if you were stable and mature), you know what I'm talking about. Being who I am, after the initial shock of the situation wore off, I started wondering about the telecom equipment that I knew existed in the towers.
Among other things, AT&T had a large switch in the basement of one of the towers. This switch handled calls for the towers themselves, as well as other parts of lower Manhattan. I have it on good authority that after the tower collapsed, the switch kept running. It ran right up until the basement was flooded, at which point a large percentage of calls in the area dropped. Redundant systems quickly took over and the landlines weren't out for long.
The switch sat under dirty water for quite awhile. When it was finally retrieved it was clogged with mud and garbage, and most of it was useless as telecom equipment. I guess AT&T cut their losses and just threw most of it away, or sold it as scrap. I really don't know. What I do know is that a friend of mine, Dan, has a small piece of it. He was part of the AT&T team that recovered the ruined switch. As a momento he took a patch cord home with him -- the kind of cord used to test and temporarily reroute circuits.
Dan and I worked together at Bell for a few years. We were pretty good friends. He called me one day out of the blue, and told me in a grave voice that he needed to see me. I hadn't talked to him for a few months at least, but he didn't ask how I was, or what I'd been up to. He just told me to get over to his office. This was strange enough that I dropped what I was doing (watching movies in the NOC), and headed over to his building.
Dan met me in reception and didn't say much. He didn't even really look at me. He escorted me into his own NOC and had me follow him to a rack. He stood there for a minute before looking at me for the first time and said, "I was testing some cards, and I ran out of patch cords. I grabbed this one from my office. It's one I took from the Twin Towers."
I didn't get his point. I just said, "Ok." Dan stared me down for awhile, then said, "pick up that phone." I picked up the phone he was talking about, and put it to my ear. The line was dirty: staticky and poppy. "So?", I said. "The circuit's dirty. Probably that patch cord. It was under water."
As I lowered the phone from my ear Dan grabbed my arm and pushed it back up. "Listen."
For around ten seconds there was nothing. Then something that I will never, never forget. Static, pops intensified, then a muffled voice: "You've got to get out of there honey, you've got to go now."
My arm fell to my side. I just stared ahead for awhile then put the phone back to my ear. Dan stared at me wild eyed. Again: static, pops, and the woman's voice: "You've got to get out of there honey, you've got to go now." It was a loop of about 30 seconds. I placed the phone down and looked at Dan. He read my mind and said, "I didn't do this, Mike." He let me trace out the circuit just to verify that it wasn't a sick joke. And it wasn't. I borrowed the patch cord and set it up at home and sure enough, the same noise. The same voice. The same warning. A woman's sorrow embedded in the cable, the copper itself, forever.