International Writers Magazine: Comment 9/11
THEY ARENT LIONELS EITHER!
James Skinner on the WTC
been in a bomb scare? I have, twice. First time was in a pub in
the West End of London at the height the IRA bomb threats in the
mid 70s. I recall that Id just bought a round of pints
when this copper came in and told us that we were
at risk because theyd just received warning of a bomb alert.
London was not quite used to terrorism in those days, and the
police officer just said, if you want to stay I suggest
you go downstairs until the all clear.
We ended up in the
mens toilet knocking back the remainder of the nights binge
and getting rid of the surplus all in one go. The second time round
occurred a few years later, again in London and was far more serious.
Our Cable & Wireless (the company I worked for) offices were just
off Holborn tube station and were on a floor just above another that
housed a department of the Inland Revenue. I happened to be on the companys
union committee and was able to talk to the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector
who had kicked us all out of the building, once again until the danger
was over. Pain in the neck, these Irish freedom fighters, arent
they Inspector? I sheepishly said to open a dialogue. He looked
at me sternly and answered, these sods are kindergarten stuff
compared to the Palestinians. He immediately referred to the tragic
terrorist attempt in the Munich 1972 Olympic games when eight Palestinians
stormed the Olympic village and took several Israeli athletes hostage
than ended up in a massacre. We saw the final report, Mr. Skinner.
It was a masterpiece of ruthless terrorist planning.
Soon after this incident, I was on my way to the USA.
Maggie Thatcher was running the UK at the time and had embarked on her
campaign of privatisation including deregulation of the telecommunications
industry. Being in the business, Cable & Wireless jumped on the
bandwagon. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time and
joined an elite team that began to plot the network of what would eventually
turn into Mercury, the second carrier to compete with British Telecom.
The planning took about four months and once it was over, my boss suddenly
said to me, now that its over and the big boys have taken
over, how would you like a stint in the States? In all my years
of travel, it had never occurred to me that I might one day venture
and settle into the most advanced and sophisticate technological empire
of the world. Our company over there is called TDX Inc. and they
operate a LCRTS, least-cost-routing telephone system. They have no Brits
on the payroll and you would be the first one to join them. I
had no idea what I was in for, but I accepted the challenge. What I
didnt know was that I first had to go for an interview with the
top brass of our American offshoot before I was accepted.
Bill Richards, the VP of Operations, met me at Washingtons Dulles
airport. Hi, Jim, he said as he greeted me, when do
you have to go back? I still had to finish tidying up in London
should these new folk decide to accept me as one of them. Tomorrow
evening, I answered sheepishly. Hum, doesnt give us
much time. The next thing I knew was that Bill was handing me
two enormous handbooks labelled, Telemax I and SST.
Browse through these, Jim and Ill pick you up tomorrow morning.
It was six oclock in the evening and I had just been delivered
to the local Marriott hotel in Fairfax County. I spent all night reading
through the description, installation and maintenance of the heart of
the companys systems. Jet lag? Whats that? Next morning,
at 08:00 sharp, Bill picked me up and drove me to the companys
HQ. With a short break of 20 minutes for a quick burger
and a Coke I spent the whole day being lectured to on the one hand,
and grilled on the other about my background and knowledge of the telecommunications
industry. From Alan Peyser, the President down through every other VP
on the board I was torn inside out. By the time Bill took me back to
the airport to catch the return flight to London, I was punch drunk.
Yet to my surprise, and as he shook my hand and bade me farewell he
said, When can you start? So began my honeymoon with the
United States of America.
Once I had settled down and taken over the Operations department, I
began to develop an expert team of engineers that would eventually embark
on the companys massive installation program of SST telephone
switches throughout the country. From San Francisco in the West Coast,
across the Midwest, then up and down the lucrative Eastern corridor,
starting in Boston and running all the way down to Miami, my department
would plot, find, negotiate and install a cheaper than Ma Bell
telephone network as part of the telecommunications deregulation program
of the USA. Bill called me in one day and said, weve got
two switches up and running in New York, Penn station and 49th St.,
right? I confirmed. Alans got a hunch about the WTC.
He thinks we need to hit the towers before the competition! I
had already learned my lesson, OK boss! Im on my way.
Chuck Wilson, my works manager, Tony Frazier, the bean-counter,
Johnny Guardino the installation supervisor and I caught the Washington/New
York shuttle the next day and within a couple of hours were in Fred
Talbots office discussing our plan. Fred was one of the many office
managers of the WTC that negotiated floor space and leasing contracts
in the Twin Towers. Having gone over several drawings and floor plans,
Tony exploded, the price of all this floor space is too expensive,
what else have you got? And so we began a magnificent tour of
the North Tower. Up above the 110th floor was the false ceiling that
was about 10 feet high. No good, I said, we need at
least 12 feet for our cabinets and racking. Tony was pissed off.
Next ride was down to the basement.
The elevator system was fantastic. We traversed between several sectors
of levels within seconds and suddenly we were down at the 14th level
below the ground. Chuck looked at me and pointed towards one of the
walls and upward, Hudson Rivers about this angle I reckon.
Suddenly there was a rumble that slowly turned into a roar. The
noise became unbearable. What the hells that? I asked.
Thats the New York subway, said Fred. And they
arent Lionels*, either!
butted in Chuck. Quick off the mark I muttered, I played with
Hornby Dublos*! There were strange
looks all round. This is also out, I concluded, too
much electric static would screw up the electronics! Tony was
furious. * Toy electric train sets.
We finally settled somewhere on the 24th floor, in a sort of interim
department that also housed airconditioning equipment, eventually signed
the lease and started the installation.
When a passenger jet slammed into the first tower on September 11th,
2001 I was sitting out on the porch of our flat, smoking my Montecristo
and sipping at a short shot of Johnny Walkers Black Label. I received
a frantic phone call from my daughter, switch the TV on, quick!
Theres been an air crash in New York. By the time I was
watching the screen, the second jet hit the other tower. The whole terrorist
plot had been revealed. When these beautiful examples of architectural
excellence began to fall my immediate thought was, my God! How
well theyre built. A perfect collapse! Suddenly I felt sorrow.
I thought back to the numerous visits I had made to supervise our installation.
The many happy moments with the team as the system began to take shape.
I came back to earth. I now felt nothing but anger at such a monstrous
attack with such a tragic toll of death. I wondered if any of my old
buddies were amongst the victims.
Five years have gone by since then. How do I feel today? Pretty simple.
I can still remember my conversation with the Scotland Yard inspector
nearly 30 years ago. Jihad had been declared back in Munich. It is now
up and running and in full swing, and what is worse, I see no way of
© James Skinner. September 11th 2006.
on the Move
James Skinner on refugees
James now lives in Vigo- Spain
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