The World Trade Center Disaster: Who Was Prepared?

A little after 8am on Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001, four cross-country passenger jetliners were hijacked with loaded fuel tanks. One was crashed into a section of the Pentagon, another plunged into the Pennsylvania countryside when passengers prevented the hijackers from hitting their target. The other two planes were crashed into New York City’s two World Trade Center (WTC) towers, ultimately causing them to implode and kill 3,000 people.

The financial industry’s equipment loss was immense. The Tower Group, a technology research company, estimated that securities firms alone will spend up to $3.2 billion just to replace computer equipment. Much of the WTC IT and telecommunications equipment was underground and was destroyed by the collapsing debris. Tower calculates replacements will include 16,000 trading-desk workstations, 34,000 PCs, 8,000 servers, plus large numbers of computer terminals, printers, storage devices, and network hubs and switches. Setting up this equipment will cost an additional $1.5 billion.

The most vital issue for many companies was their loss of staff. Few recovery plans anticipated such a catastrophe. Organizations that were directly hit did not even know who in their companies had survived or where they were because hardly any kept secure, accessible lists of employees or contact information. The New York Board of Trade (NYBT), which had its trading floor in the WTC to deal in such commodities as coffee, orange juice, cocoa, sugar and cotton, had to call all employees, one by one. Often survivors couldn’t be reached because area telephone facilities were destroyed while any working circuits were overloaded. A few companies had considered some staff problems. Disaster recovery companies did provide some workspace for their customers. Comdisco had seven WTC customers, and it made space available for 3,000 customer employees, enabling those companies to continue operations. Some recovery companies, including SunGard, made available tractor-trailers equipped with portable data centers. Not all plans worked. Barclays Bank had planned for evacuating its 1,200-person investment-banking unit to its disaster recovery site in New Jersey, but the site proved to be too small for so many employees. Moreover, the bridges and tunnels crossing the Hudson River were immediately closed so most employees could not get there. Fortunately Barclays was able to shift much of its work to its London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo offices, although the time differences forced those workers to do double shifts.

Data loss is extremely critical, often requiring extensive planning. Many organizations already relied on disaster recovery companies such as SunGard, Comdisco, and Recall, which offer office space, computers, and telecommunications equipment when disasters occur. “Cold site” recovery requires the companies to back up their own data onto tapes, storing them offsite. If a disaster occurs, the organizations transport their backup tapes to the recovery sites where they load and boot their applications from scratch using their backup tapes. Although the cold site approach is relatively inexpensive, restoring data can be slow, often taking up to 24 hours. If the tapes are stored at the affected site or relatively close by, all data may be permanently lost, which could put some companies out of business. Moreover, the data for all activity since the last backup will be lost.

“Hot site” backups can solve some problems, but may cost some companies as much as $1 million monthly. A hot site is located offsite where a reserve computer continually creates a mirror image of the production computer’s data. Should a data disaster occur, the company can quickly switch over to the back up computer and continue to operate. If the production site itself is destroyed, the staff will actually go to the hot site to operate.

While many companies lost a great deal of data in the attack, a recent Morgan Stanley technology team report said the WTC was “probably one of the best-prepared office facilities from a systems and data recovery perspective.” Lower Manhattan’s extraordinary data security concern erupted in 1993 when a large bomb exploded in the subterranean parking area of the WTC in a terrorist attack. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. Realizing how vulnerable they were, many companies took steps to protect themselves. Pressures for emergency planning further increased as companies faced the feared Y2K problems. As a result, the data for many organizations were relatively well protected when the recent WTC attack occurred. Let us look at how some organizations responded to the attack.

Prior to 1993, to protect itself, the NYBT had contracted with SunGard Data Systems Inc. for “cold site” disaster recovery. After the 1993 bombing it decided to establish its own hot site. It rented a computer and trading floor space in Queens for $300,000 annually. It hired Comdisco to help it set up the hot backup site, which it hoped to never have to use despite the expense. After the attack the NYBT quickly moved its operations to Queens and began trading on September 17, along with the NYSE, Nasdaq, and the other exchanges that had not suffered direct hits.

Sometimes backups are too limited. Most disaster recovery companies and their clients have been too focused on recovery of mainframes and have insufficient capabilities for recovering midrange systems and servers. Moreover, backups are often stored in the same office or site and so are useless if the location is destroyed. For example the Board of Trade backed up only some servers and PCs, and those backups were stored in a fireproof safe in the WTC where they were buried beneath many thousands of tons of rubble.

Giant bond trader Cantor Fitzgerald occupied several top floors in one of the WTC buildings and lost its offices and nearly 700 of its 1000 American staff. No company could have adequately planned for the magnitude of this disaster. However Cantor was almost immediately able to shift its functions to its Connecticut and London offices, and its surviving U.S. traders began settling trades by telephone. Despite its enormous losses, the company amazingly resumed operations in just two days, partly with the help of backup companies, software, and computer systems. One reason for its rapid recovery was Recall, Cantor’s disaster recovery company. Recall had up-to-date Cantor data because it had been picking up Cantor backup tapes three to five times daily. Moreover, in 1999 Cantor had started switching much of its trading to eSpeed, a fully automated on-line system. After the WTC disaster Peter DaPuzzo, a founder and head of Cantor Fitzgerald, decided that the company would not replace any of the over 100 lost bond traders. Instead the company switched its entire bond trading to eSpeed.

America’s oldest bank, the Bank of New York (BONY), is a critical hub for securities processing because it is one of the largest custodians and clearing institutions in the United States. Half the trading in U.S. government bonds moves through its settlement system. The bank also handles around 140,000 fund transfers totaling $900 billion every day. Since the bank facilitates the transfer of cash between buyers and sellers, any outage or disruption of its systems would leave some firms short of anticipated cash already promised to others. BONY was under extraordinary pressure to keep running at full speed.

BONY operations were heavily concentrated in downtown Manhattan, very close to the World Trade Center. The bank is headquartered at 1 Wall Street, almost adjoining the WTC and had two other sites on Barclay and Church Streets that were even closer. These buildings housed 5,300 employees plus the bank’s main computer center. On September 11th, the bank lost the two closest sites and their equipment. The bank had arranged for its computer processing to revert to centers outside New York in case of emergency, but it was not able to follow its plan. The World Trade Center attack had heavily damaged a major Verizon switching station at 140 West Street serving 3 million data circuits in lower Manhattan. The loss of this switching station left BONY without any bandwidth for transmitting voice and data communications to downtown New York, and the bank struggled to find ways to connect with customers.

The bank’s disaster recovery plan called for paper check processing to be moved from its financial district computer center to its Cherry Hill, New Jersey facility. With communication so disrupted, BONY management decided Cherry Hill was too distant and moved the functions to its closer center in Lodi, New Jersey. However, that center lacked machines for its lock-box business, in which it opens envelopes that contain bill payments, deposits checks, and reads payment stubs to credit the right accounts.

The bank had deliberately planned to have different levels of backup for different functions. The bank’s government bond processing was backed up by a second computer that could take over on a moment’s notice. No such backup existed for the bank’s 350 automated teller machines. The bank rationalized that its customers could use other banks’ machines in case of a problem and its customers were forced to do that. Even the backup system for the government bond business did not work properly because the communication lines between its backup sites and clients’ backup sites were often of low capacity and had not been fully tested and debugged. For example, BONY’s required connection to the Government Securities Clearing Corporation, a central component of the government bond market, failed, so tapes had to be driven to that organization for several days. Trades were properly posted but clients could not obtain timely reports on their positions. The bank had also established redundant telecommunication facilities in case of problems with one line, but they turned out to be routed through the same physical phone facilities. John Costas, the president and COO of UBS Warburg, explained “We’ve all learned that when we have backup lines, we should know a lot more about where they run.”

As a result, the Bank of New York’s customers expecting funds from the Bank of New York didn’t receive them on time and had to borrow emergency cash for the Federal Reserve. Yet Thomas A. Renyi, the Bank of New York’s chairman, expressed pride in how the bank had responded. He said “Our longstanding disaster recovery plans worked, and they worked in the extreme.” It will be months before BONY can return to its computer center at 101 Barclay Street and the bank is working with IBM on locating an interim computer center and on improving its backup systems.

The Nasdaq stock exchange seems to have had more success. It has no trading floor anywhere but instead is a vast distributed network with over 7,000 workstations at about 2,500 sites, all connected to its network through at least 20 points of presence (POPs). The POPs in turn are doubly or triply connected to its main network and data centers in Connecticut and Maryland. Nasdaq’s headquarters at 1 Liberty Plaza were heavily damaged. Its operational staff and its press and broadcast functions are housed in its Times Square building. On September 11th (Tuesday), Nasdaq opened as usual, at 8am but it closed at 9:15am, and did not open again until the following Monday when the NYSE and other exchanges resumed trading. Nasdaq was well prepared for the disaster with its highly redundant setup. Nasdaq had required many managers to carry two cell phones in case both the telephone and one cell phone did not work and required every employee from the chairman on down to carry a crisis line number card. It had many cameras and monitoring systems so that the company would know what actually happened if a disaster or other crisis should strike. Nasdaq had even purposely established a very close relationship with Worldcom, its telecommunications provider, and it had made sure Worldcom had access to different networks for the purpose of redundancy.

At first Nasdaq established a command center at its Times Square office, but the implosion of the WTC buildings destroyed Nasdaq’s telephone switches connected to that office, and so the essential staff members were quickly moved to a nearby hotel. Management immediately addressed the personnel situation, creating an executive locator system in Maryland with everyone’s names and telephone numbers and a list of the still missing. Next it evaluated the physical situation—what was destroyed, what ceased to work, where work could proceed—while finding offices for the 127 employees who worked near the WTC. Then it started to evaluate the regulatory and trading industry situations and the conditions of Nasdaq’s trading companies. The security staff was placed on high alert to search for attempted penetration of the building or the network.

On Wednesday, September 12, Nasdaq management determined that 30 of the 300 firms it called would not be able to open the next day, 10 of which needed to operate out of backup centers. Management assigned some of its own staff to work with all 30 firms to help solve their problems. The next day it learned that the devastated lower Manhattan telecommunications would not be ready to support Nasdaq opening the following day. It decided to postpone Nasdaq’s opening until Monday, September 17. On Saturday and again on Sunday Nasdaq successfully ran industry-wide testing. On Monday, only six days after the attack, Nasdaq opened and successfully processed 2.7 billion shares, by far its largest volume ever.

Nasdaq found its distributed systems worked very well, while its rapid recovery validated the necessity for two network topologies. Moreover, while Nasdaq lost no senior staff, the company had three dispersed management sites, and had it lost one, the company could still operate because of the leadership at its two remaining sites. Nasdaq also realized its extensive crisis management rehearsals for both Y2K and the conversion to decimals had proven vital, verifying the need to schedule more rehearsals regularly. The company even recognized how critical ongoing communications were, and so it formalized regular nationwide company telecommunication forums. It even established automatic triggers for regular communication forums with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Case Study Questions:

  1. Summarize the business and technology problems created by the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

  2. How well prepared were companies described in this case for the problems resulting from the WTC disaster?

  3. Compare the responses of NASDAQ and the Bank of New York to September 11th. What management, organization, and technology factors affected their disaster recoveries?

  4. Were there any security problems that companies had failed to anticipate when the WTC attacks occurred? How well did companies deal with them?

  5. Explain some effective actions taken because of creative management responses which were not in company disaster plans.

  6. Select a major financial company and write a summary description of its operations. Then develop an outline of a security plan for that company.

Sources: Anthony Guerra, “The Buck Stopped Here: BONY’s Disaster Recovery Comes Under Attack, “ Wall Street and Technology, November 2001; Saul Hansell with Riva D. Atlas, “Disruptions Put Bank of New York to the Test,” The New York Times, October 6, 2001; Tom Field, “How Nasdaq Bounced Back,” CIO Magazine, November 1, 2001; Dennis K. Berman and Calmetta Coleman, “Companies Test System-Backup Plans as They Struggle to Recover Lost Data,” The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2001; Jayson Blair, “A Nation Challenged: The Computers,” The New York Times, September 20, 2001; Debra Donston, “Disaster Recovery’s Core Component: People,” eWeek, September 13, 2001; Tom Field, “Disaster Recovery: Nasdaq,” CIO, October 12, 2001; John Foley, “Ready for Anything?” Information Week, September 24, 2001; Sharon Gaudin, “Protecting a Net in a Time of Terrorism,” Network World Fusion, September 24, 2001; Stan Gibson, “Mobilizing IT,” eWeek, September 17, 2001; Eugene Grygo and Jennifer Jones, “U.S. Recovery: Cost of Rebuilding N.Y. IT Infrastructures Estimated at $3.2 Billion,” InfoWorld, September 19, 2001; Edward Iwata and Jon Schwartz, “Tech Firms Jump In to Help Companies Mobilize to Rebuild Systems, Reclaim Lost Data,” USA Today, September 19, 2001; April Jacobs, “Good Planning Kept NASDAQ Running During Attacks,” Network World Fusion, September 24, 2001; Suzanne Kapner, “Wall Street Runs Through London,” The New York Times, September 27, 2001; Richard Karpinski, “E-Business Aftermath,” InternetWeek, September 24, 2001; Diane Rezendes Khirallah, “Disaster Takes Toll on Public Network,” Information Week, September 17, 2001; Daniel Machalaba and Carrick Mollenkamp, “Companies Struggle to Cope with Chaos, Breakdowns and Trauma,” The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2001; Paul McDougall and Rick Whiting, “Assessing the Impact (Part One), Information Week, September 17, 2001; Patrick McGeehan, “A Nation Challenged: Wall Street,” The New York Times, September 21, 2001; Paula Musich, “Rising From the Rubble,” eWeek, September 24, 2001; Kathleen Ohlson, “Businesses Start the Recovery Process,” Network World Fusion, September 12, 2001; Julia Scheeres, “Attack Can’t Erase Stored Data,”, September 21, 2001; Carol Sliwa, “New York Board of Trade Gets Back to Business,” Computerworld, September 24, 2001; Marc L. Songini, “Supply Chains Face Changes After Attacks,” Computerworld, October 1, 2001; Bob Tedeschi, “More Web Spending with a Focus,” The New York Times, October 8, 2001; Dan Verton, “IT Operations Damaged in Pentagon Attack,” Computerworld, September 24, 2001; Shawn Tully, “Rebuilding Wall Street,” Fortune, October 1, 2001; and “WTC Technology Replacement Costs Billions,”, September 14, 2001.

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