September 11 Project

Immediately after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, search and rescue teams deployed around the site to provide all sort of assistance. Among them was a group of communication  technology specialists who were  trying to capture cell phone signals from the ruins.

WHYY media  producer and writer Michael O’Reilly gathered members of the team for an informal conversation. He captured it on tape and created this audio essay.

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The producer would like to thank these individuals for their participation in this project:

Larry Dodds, Vice President of Product Line Management
Rob Anderson, Executive Vice President and CTO
Ted Boinske, Principal Software Architect
Bill Townsend, Senior Director of Embedded Hardware and Software Development
Rash Mia, Vice President and Chief Scientist
John Jarvis, Manager


Read the transcript:

I am sitting a boardroom with a bunch of guys looking at pictures from 10 years ago. The pictures are personal snaphots from when these guys were working at ground zero. Looking at the pictures is disconcerting because I’ve seen all these views before from the news, but without familiar people in them. It’s almost like recognizing your family and friends in pictures of the Titanic – two familiar things from wholly different worlds. Or like running into your grade school teacher on vacation.

ROB: The thing that these pictures don’t do is they just don’t to me, get the scale

BILL: That’s what’s kind of weird…

LARRY: They don’t; the smell, the sounds, the whole thing is missing from these, right? I mean, they just look like a mob.

ROB: This is some of our catwalk stuff that we were on

TED: Do we have a picture of the building we were in? That I think is the Verizon post office (Group Agreement – Verizon Building)

These guys were not first responders. They worked for a company, TruePosition,  outside of Philadelphia that locates mobile devices – not by GPS tracking but by using old-fashioned trigonometry and math. And they discovered that there were cell phones – over 1600 of them in the pit, the main wreckage area – in the hours after the September 11 attacks.

I hadn’t really heard anything about this operation in the 10 years since September 11. In fact TruePosition is pretty mum about it too – though proud. A plexiglass case in the lobby holds a piece of TruePosition equipment that they used that day.

I heard about it through Ted Boinkse. I’ve known Ted for over 25 years and the operation just came up in conversation. 10 years ago there was no Facebook status update to say “I was participating in a search and rescue effort at the site of the worst terrorist attack on American soil”. Ted would never do that. He doesn’t even have a facebook presence now.

So these guys were called in – this is how it worked:

All cell phones check in with the network every minute or so via a cell tower. Those cell towers can be all over the place, so by comparing the difference in the time it takes the cell phone signal to reach each tower, simple trigonometry makes it easy to determine an area of overlap. The more cell towers, the smaller the area of overlap and the better the accuracy. While movies show us tracking devices and GPS enabled technology, even 10 years ago, in real life it doesn’t always work like it does in the movies. You don’t see this kind of tech in the movies because, after all, trigonometry is not usually regarded as sexy.

LARRY: Right – TruePosition is a wireless locations company, we locate mobile devices. In the US we locate 5 million 911 calls a month. And we do that by detecting when that mobile device is transmitted at, and we receive it at multiple antennas. So what we decided it would be possible to do was locate phones in the pit, by taking antennas, and surrounding the pit with antennas, and dragging the communications equipment that would have to go from those antennas back to a central place, and from there, we can locate those devices, that are transmitting in the pit.

PRODUCER: It’s the basic idea of triangulation.

LARRY: It’s the basic idea of triangulation so a phone transmits in the pit, and as that transmission happens, we detect it at multiple antennas that are surrounding the pit. We pull that information back to a central place, and then we can calculate the location of that device. And we were able to detect the location of I think approximately 1600 phones that were uniquely being transmitted in the pit.  If you can make a phone call, we can detect you, because we are at the same towers that the cell tower is at, our antennas. So if we can, if you can actually make a phone call, we can locate that phone.

PRODUCER: I asked them what they had seen that surprised them, and they told me at least one thing that I had never heard before:

ROB: After going upstairs, we noticed large amounts of broken glass… tons of dust and other debris, pieces of what looked like heat exchange or air conditioning systems, and a lot of uh… everywhere you looked you’d see these same kinds of things, and also often would include a lot of paper, some of which would be pages or pieces of paper from pornographic magazines.

PRODUCER: That’s surprising. Have you ever seen that before ?

ROB: You know it’s not something I’ve ever seen myself, you know, in the work place, but there seemed to be quite a bit around the scene of the incident.

PRODUCER: I completely understand why I have never heard that before, since just to mention it would distract from the immeasurable loss that occurred there and by implication sully the memory of those that died there. But I can’t get beyond the incongruity of picturing it there – in the workplace before or after the disaster.

BILL: I do remember one thing, you know, we’re on one side of the pit, and you can see across the way, to buildings on the other side of the pit, at least one or two that I can recall, these buildings were on fire. You could see the fire blowing out the windows… and there wasn’t fire crews there trying to fight these fires that I can recall, I didn’t see any water on these fires, it’s just, these buildings were burning, and they’re likely going to burn to the ground because there was nothing that could be done you know…

TED: What I kept on thinking of was sort of apocalyptic science fiction movies, that’s what captures is for me the best. This general feeling that it was the end of civilization as we know it, and these are the sort of remains.

LARRY: The amount of support that was there to support the rescue workers was just amazing. People were driving around in golf carts, making sure you were hydrated by just handing out water, handing out Gatorade. There were food station that were set up, that must have been set up by all the restaurants in New York. They weren’t box lunches, this was good food that was set up all over the place: fruit, snacks, hot meals. There were generators, just lines and lines of generators that were set up for anyone’s need.

If you needed a generator to go get, to set up a piece of equipment, there were depots in fact were you could grab a generator and set it up.  There were shoes, there were masks, there were boots, there were jackets, anything that you could imagine that you really needed was just available to you, and you would just ask someone for it, and you would be pointed to some supply place, where you could have something you needed, no matter what it was. The support there was just unbelievable.

BILL: It had to have been a boardroom, similar to the type of room we’re sitting in now.  With what looked to be a nice table, all kinds of chairs, but the thing that was remarkable to be was that there were plates, with food, bagels… one bite out of a bagel, multiple bites out of things… it was all covered with dust, and it seemed like fake food because it was all covered with dust,  but you knew that people were sitting in that room right before the disaster happened, right before… it occurred, and then they were out of there.

TED: It had to have been a boardroom, similar to the type of room we’re sitting in now.  With what looked to be a nice table, all kinds of chairs, but the thing that was remarkable to be was that there were plates, with food, bagels… one bite out of a bagel, multiple bites out of things… it was all covered with dust, and it seemed like fake food because it was all covered with dust,  but you knew that people were sitting in that room right before the disaster happened, right before… it occurred, and then they were out of there.

I remember once hearing about something that happened in WWII – I don’t know if it was from a movie or if someone told me about this. Troops had come upon a house that had the entire side blown away to reveal a family, all seated around the table, dead. The way the bomb had exploded had literally sucked the oxygen from the area suffocating them, still seated before their now dust-covered and rotting food. I think back to the Titanic reference I had made earlier.

Years ago, about the time the movie TITANIC came out, I did an art installation at Eastern State Penitentiary – an abandoned but stabilized ruin of a prison in Philadelphia. They let me go through their archives where I found a log book that spanned the 20 years between 1895-1915. I looked up the date April 14, 1912 in the log book thinking that I’d find a mention of the Titanic. Nothing. But a week later, while looking through the same section of the log book, on Sunday April 19, 1912, I stumbled on this mention. There, in a beautiful fountain-penned script were the words –

OVERSEER O’NEILL – Funeral Services sacred to memory of those lost in the wreck of the titanic on the night of April 14th, 1912. The prisoners took part by marching around the center. Music by the Penitentiary Choir. Accompanied by ESP orchestra 2pm. All well in gallery.

I never really used this reference in the installation, but afterwards, I would always wonder about it. Did the prisoners know some of the passengers ? Were there so many Philadelphians on board that it resonated into every corner of the city ? Was it SO different then ?

It wasn’t until the events of September 11 that I really understood why the prisoners did what they did. By myself, just spontaneously, I wanted to pay tribute to those that had died. That feeling must have been even stronger when one was  surrounded by others, whether in a school, church or a prison. How could I expect to understand the prisoners reaction to the Titanic, when these kinds of things – pearl harbor,  the titanic, catastrophic disasters with huge loss of life – had happened so long ago in the past ? My only frame of reference were movies – but I felt way worse than what Obi Wan Kenobi feels when the whole planet of Alderaan gets blown up. I remember watching STAR WARS after September 11 and thinking that if Obi-wan really felt something, he’d just be doubled over for the whole rest of the movie retching his guts out at the atrocity of what had just happened.

Toward the end of their first and last day, they had the pit ringed with the cell phone antennas. They got everything working and over the course of the next few hours began collecting signals.

First they would get the signal that had the cell phone number embedded in it. Sometimes they had to ask the first responders to shut off their phones since those numbers would get picked up too. Then they would see if their list matched any of the 911 calls, since that would mean there was a greater probability that they could target active users for location.

But they just kept calling numbers and they would go right to voice mail, or they wouldn’t pick up at all.

LARRY: As these numbers were coming up on our screens that were telling us that these mobile numbers were still coming from the pit. We were on this telephone bridge where multiple parties can call into this one number and hear each other speak, so it’s a conference bridge with secret service and FBI and a whole bunch of federal organizations, and there was just constant chatter back and forth about what was going on and which organizations needed to do what, and we were on that bridge telling them that we were detecting phones in the pit, and as the would come up with a number of someone who dialed 911 or somebody who was reportedly in there, they would ask us if it was in our list, and we would do the same to them.

We would say ok we just received a transmission of somebody that did this, do you know anything about that phone number? They were all just reading off numbers to us, and we were checking them in our database, but at one point, the told us a phone number And a persons Name. Her name was Melissa Vincent. They told us on the bridge that she had recently dialed 911: they didn’t say recently within the last 5 minutes, but they had received a 911 call from Melissa Vincent on this phone number- to see if we could locate that phone, or if it was in our database. It struck me as strange because up until that moment it was just a list of phone numbers, and now there was a name associated with it, and it became horrifying on a whole other level, because there was actually a name associated with this thing.

And after we came home, like the rest of the world, we were glued to our TV’s watching the aftermath unfold, and at one point I was watching a news cast, and there was a father that came on and was talking about his missing daughter, and her name was Melissa Vincent, and it just was an incredible coincidence that just really struck home and brought the whole thing to a stark reality, when you’re in that situation to see her father, and have him say that he didn’t know anything about her, and I knew at least that she had dialed 911 at some point after the event, so it was quite a shocking turn of events.

… to a name, and then all of a sudden it goes from a number, to a name, to her father… and it just escalates the entire event

PRODUCER: I download the guide for the 9/11 memorial onto my iPhone, enter her last name in the search field and there she is – her name inscribed on the north pool panel, N-65.

It quickly became clear that they weren’t even going to be able to use their locating technology because they would only be locating cell phones buried in the pile. It had turned from a search and rescue operation into a cadaver recovery situation. On top of that, there was an urgent need to leave since another building was in danger of coming down.

ROB: I was gonna say the same thing, I think that we did go there with the hopes of helping out the rescue, and I think in leaving, when we were all evacuated, we weren’t able to go back in. We were done at that point, and I know I felt really bad that we weren’t able to go back, that we weren’t able to do more

TED: The reason we were there was to try to find people, try to find survivors in the rubble. In the end, there were no survivors found, by us or by anyone else, and that was obviously disappointing for us and everyone else who was there. So… for us there was no major climax, where we rescued, where we discovered some survivors and were able to extricate them from the rubble. It didn’t happen. We weren’t able to locate any survivors, and we went home.

PRODUCER: I remember that time, volunteering for the Red Cross, wanting to help. And I remember that night, the world eerily silent. Around 3 am, thousands of people  across this city leapt from their beds, convinced Philadelphia was now under attack  as thunderstorms rumbled like bombs being dropped up and down the east coast.  I stood there panting in the dark, ready for what would happen next.

Produced and edited by Michael O’Reilly


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