Aboard a vessel in shifting waters

I can still feel the constant sway of a vessel at sea in shifting waters as it felt on September 11. After the terrorist attacks that day, the metaphor wasn't lost on me. The world we had known was reeling from the attacks of the insane.

          I can still feel the constant sway of a vessel at sea in shifting waters as it felt on September 11. After the terrorist attacks that day, the metaphor wasn't lost on me. The world we had known was reeling from the attacks of the insane.

          And, no, it wasn't too many cocktails that made me sway, although, as the day's events unfolded, the liquor flowed fairly freely on the Aurora, a cruise ship to nowhere on the Atlantic that was host to the CIO Forum.

          The forum, run by Richmond Events, had gathered together vendors, media, and top IT executives from Aetna US Healthcare, AT&T, CitiGroup, Corning, EDS, Eastman Kodak, FritoLay, Hyundai, Johnson & Johnson, KPMG Consulting, Merck & Co, Merrill Lynch & Co, Metropolitan Life Insurance, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co, PepsiCo, Prudential, State Street Global Advisors, and UPS -- to name just a few.

          Being naturally paranoid, I assumed that if a terrorist somewhere wanted to focus on making a major dent in the "human intellectual capital" of corporate America in one fell swoop, we were it. The Aurora captain and Richmond Events officials rejected my fears in public statements, and events proved them right. However, a senior official of a major Boston-based buy-side financial firm, who has a military and national security background, agreed with my observation. I sought comfort by deluding myself that moving targets have a better chance of survival.

          The first any of us heard about the attacks was during a morning session on Tuesday, about 9.30am, when the sobering, staid voice of the captain broke through the public address system: " ... We can confirm that two planes have hit the World Trade Center." Gasps and curses were followed by a declaration by the session speaker, who brought his useful presentation to a close with the words, "This is more important."

          At a few junctures along the way, things did get a bit dicey, adding to my paranoia. Any ship -- even a lowly tugboat pulling a barge -- that came near the Aurora was immediately under suspicion. And not long after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, I saw US Coast Guard helicopters and ships zoom by as well as an F-16 jet fighter whose familiar V-shape took on a new significance.

          The Aurora is a UK vessel and, therefore, a foreign one. In the heightened atmosphere that followed the attacks, any such vessel was suspect.

          We were anchored about 10 to 12 miles outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in safe gambling waters while the news was breaking, and none of us was able to see the smoke rising out of Manhattan. By the time it was clear what was happening, the seaports of New York were closed and for a large part of the day we were adrift in the Atlantic, and heading east. The situation became surreal as we watched the horrors via a BBC news channel. Some of the participants were anesthetising their discomfort with liquor or laughter. Others stuck to their schedules of sessions and power meetings. Most were stunned and glued to their TV sets, turning to the comfort of the gentle breezes and the calm of the sea.

          I quickly reached a saturation point with the TV coverage and had to get out and talk to someone -- anyone -- to escape the horror that appeared to be engulfing us. Most of the ship's support staff are from India, and one young man asked me, "Are we close to New York?" as I left my cabin. When I informed him how close, his smile disappeared.

          I wandered around the impeccably scrubbed deck, looking for solace. One executive from a major Wall Street firm said, "I will hate Ralph Nader forever," in reference to the effects the Green Party had on the last presidential election, and his lack of confidence in our current commander-in-chief. He later talked about those he knew who would have been working on a trading floor in one of the towers.

          Even though we were sick to our stomachs, we went to lunch just to give a semblance of things as normal. I realised when I got to my assigned table that I wasn't alone in my need to talk. Some said that the towers have to be rebuilt and that we have to give the finger to the terrorists. Others speculated on whether it would have been worse if the Statue of Liberty had been destroyed.

          Immediately brushed aside were our concerns about the rest of the sessions, power meetings, the formal evening wear we had to don for dinner that night, or the threats of a hurricane brewing, then fizzling, near Bermuda. Personal barriers came down too: The normal reporter-to-source wall was obliterated and we were communicating on a personal level. CIOs and vendors were drinking and joking with vilified members of the press and analysts.

          The oft-ridiculed geeky types, as well as the slick executives, showed incredible humanity -- they were real people, after all, with families as well as friendships earned during incredible political IT battles and projects. The ego trips and turf battles all seemed to fall away as quickly as the concrete and steel beams of the twin towers. The loss of machines to these people was suddenly far less important than the loss of their IT comrades-in-arms, who had shown not only what they knew, but what they were made of. We took cold comfort in the fact that we were a safe distance away from the disaster and that it was only by chance that our lives were spared. But we also knew the pain that was waiting for us would be no less potent. In these brief moments of sudden intimacy, I wished the barriers could be down forever.

          I managed to get to one session, and the leader stopped to ask the group if they were there for edification or as a distraction from the horror of the day's events. We all shook our heads in unison -- the horrific news had been overwhelming. No one could really think about data management enterprise strategies, the ROI of warehouses, or the securing of IT talent.

          After the sessions were over, we could talk about what really matters. One young executive wondered aloud about the effects upon the firm he just joined of such a cataclysmic attack, and concluded that the company would be put out of business.

          Almost to a person, though, the refrain was that the human side of IT is what cannot ever really be replaced. On Wall Street, in particularly, over the coming weeks and days, this will become painfully clear.

          "There's a big hole in expertise that just showed up," said Stefan Jon Silverman, a financial technology consultant who had worked on the Bank of America/Montgomery Securities floor in one of World Trade Center towers. "The human intellectual capital in financial IT is inestimable."

          So too, he said, is the expertise on the business side, especially those who know how to do financial transactions that strain IT resources because of their complexity. To make matters worse, he recently got married in Windows on the World -- the stunning restaurant at the top of the center that on a clear day gave you a bird's eye view of the majesty of New York.

          "It goes beyond the dead -- it goes to the walking wounded," Silverman said. He added that he knows of people who, after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, "couldn't get into tall buildings again." This "targeted act of destruction is exponentially, logarithmically worse than that." Who in their right mind would return?

          But those who have survived will return.

          I had been to the World Trade Center towers many times, so often that I thought nothing of it and always grumbled about its security system. It is still unthinkable to me that those towers are gone and that so many have perished. We took for granted what that building stood for. It was a place for conducting the nitty gritty of international commerce where many brilliant, unsung heroes -- especially in IT -- ran everything in the background so that the star traders and others on the business side could shine. There are also, I'm sure, other armies of consultants, support staff, and outsourced employees who were at great risk on that terrible morning but who have the quiet courage to come back and keep the world running.

          As we pulled into our re-routed destination, Boston harbour, we knew we had witnessed something that we pray will never be repeated in our lives. These were moments when the pretense of what was important was blown away and what remains is a common humanity that must be our key to survival.

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