The International Writers Magazine: Comment 9/11

James Skinner on the WTC

ver 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 70’s. I recall that I’d just bought a round of pints when this ‘copper’ came in and told us that we were at risk because they’d 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 men’s toilet knocking back the remainder of the night’s 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 company’s 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, aren’t 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 it’s 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 didn’t 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 Washington’s 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, doesn’t 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 I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.’ It was six o’clock 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 company’s systems. Jet lag? What’s that? Next morning, at 08:00 sharp, Bill picked me up and drove me to the company’s 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 company’s 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, ‘we’ve got two switches up and running in New York, Penn station and 49th St., right?’ I confirmed. ‘Alan’s 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! I’m 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 Talbot’s 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 River’s about this angle I reckon.’ Suddenly there was a rumble that slowly turned into a roar.’ The noise became unbearable. ‘What the hell’s that?’ I asked. ‘That’s the New York subway,’ said Fred. ‘And they aren’t Lionel’s*, 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 Walker’s Black Label. I received a frantic phone call from my daughter, ‘switch the TV on, quick! There’s 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 they’re 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 stopping it.’

© James Skinner. September 11th 2006.
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James now lives in Vigo- Spain


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