9/11 effort was in vain, but they tried

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Rockwood resident tells of how he, others used communications to locate potential victims

Like all of us, I recall where I was and what I was doing 10 years ago.

Sept. 11, 2001, will be forever etched into our memories. And, like the rest, I wondered what I could do to help.

At that time, I was living in the Atlanta  area. I was a field engineer for the Mobitex wireless data network. That was the first carrier for the BlackBerry system.

By 10 in the morning, my manager had sent out a message to all of us field engineers to leave any downtown areas.

The primary network operations center was in Woodbridge, N.J., just across the river from New York. The staff there could see the smoke, and then dust, rising from the World Trade Center.

Many people in those towers, as well as at the Pentagon, carried those RIM (Research in Motion) BlackBerry pagers.

As a corporation, we knew we could do something. The network operations center engineers quickly split the nationwide network into two pieces.

The Woodbridge network operations center would handle New York City and the surrounding area, while the network operations center  in Dallas would handle the rest of the United States.

Lists were quickly made of every pager thought to possibly be carried by anyone that might be employed or visiting the World Trade Center. Scripts were rapidly cobbled together to scan the network for any activity for those units.

Next, each device was sent a “ping” to see if it was even active. Every device reachable via a “ping” was then sent an “Are you OK?” message.

Replies were then sorted out, help offered and the location of the individual verified.

The list of devices was trimmed down to those assumed to be in the collapsed buildings.

Like anyone who uses a radio network, including all of our first-responders here in Roane County, there are areas that are difficult, if not impossible, to get signal.

It depends on many factors, including how close you are to a base station or tower.

When the towers collapsed, several of our base stations were lost. And those base stations were the closest to what was now Ground Zero.
Something had to be done. People with pagers and cell phones were buried under those tons of rubble.

The field engineers for the Mobitex network, like those for cellular carriers, had a plan.

We each had to establish a portable base station as close as possible to Ground Zero and use more specialized antennas to attempt to penetrate through the debris with the signal.

There was one problem. FedEx, UPS and every other overnight carrier was grounded. No aircraft other than military was allowed in the air.

Whatever was going to be used had to arrive by ground.

I volunteered.

But it took many more field engineers to accomplish the task. The field engineers from Loretto, Tenn., started for home very early Thursday morning, arriving in Huntsville, Ala., as the warehouse opened to pick up some parts for a satellite dish.

Another drove to downtown Atlanta to obtain a special cable.

The Tennessee field engineer arrived at my house shortly before noon, and we transferred that equipment into my emptied company truck.

I then went to our office on the edge of Atlanta for the cable and drove to North Carolina. There, I picked up a U-Haul trailer and picked up the large components for the satellite dish.

With all the needed components, I continued on toward a network switch center in South Plainfield, N.J. That office had become the staging area for the operations.

A message that night, while driving through the darkness, drove home the importance of this endeavor and my trip.

The primary field engineer for the project simply stated, “This could be a matter of life or death.”

That sunk in. That RIM BlackBerry pager just could be the only communications link for someone buried within that mass of concrete and steel.

It was imperative that the equipment with me reach its destination.

At the next fuel stop, I bought the largest cup of coffee and pushed myself on.

I arrived in South Plainfield about 3 in the morning. The place was buzzing with activity. The equipment was unloaded, sorted and readied for loading onto a Red Cross vehicle.

That vehicle took the custom-built base station to Ground Zero only hours later.

Every other wireless carrier had done the same for their network. Other specialized test equipment was used to detect any signal emanating from the pile.

As we all now know, there was nothing. No one had survived when to towers collapsed. Many New York City firefighters and police officers, along with common citizens and visitors to the World Trade Center that day, died in that disaster.

But I at least know that I did what I could — even if it was in vain.

But — I will never forget.
Cliff Segar now lives in Rockwood and is a volunteer to the Roane Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security.