Sept. 11 secrets: The amazing life — and death — of an Internet pioneer on Flight 11

A plane that struck the Trade Center carried one of the Web's geniuses, who may have been the day's first casualty

Topics: Books, September 11, Flight 11, American Airlines, Danny Lewin, Akamai, Editor's Picks, , , ,

Sept. 11 secrets: The amazing life -- and death -- of an Internet pioneer on Flight 11Danny Lewin (Credit: Da Capo Press)

Despite the fact that the markets were no longer betting on Akamai, company executives chose Las Vegas for their 2001 sales kickoff. To mark the official launch of EdgeSuite, they flew several dozen employees and advisors out to Sin City for a few days at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino.

As VP of sales, John Sconyers said that, despite the market downturn, the mood was celebratory. Akamai had a new service, and with it the promise of new customers. They were in Vegas, and for a time, they felt like big winners. “We were just pinching ourselves,” Sconyers recalled. “It was an unbelievable experience.”

Employees, customers and members of the company’s board were put up in swank suites and handed substantial wads of cash to gamble. Ironically, it was the only time Dwight Gibbs of the Motley Fool recalled any sort of dispute with founder Danny Lewin, who insisted that Gibbs, a member of the company’s customer advisory board, stay in an upscale suite. “I said I didn’t like the optics . . . Danny would hear none of it,” Gibbs explained. “It was a mild kerfuffle, and eventually Danny won. I should have given in immediately. It would have saved us both a lot of time.”

The featured event of the sales kickoff was a speech by Lewin, the mathematical genius who had created a set of algorithms to foster a faster, better Internet, who announced the official launch of EdgeSuite with much fanfare. Notwithstanding the reality of the plunging markets, he was ebullient and optimistic. “Isn’t EdgeSuite a crappy name?” he asked, pausing for a laugh. “Luckily, we use it to our advantage. Microsoft also told me EdgeSuite was a crappy name, but they said we also have a crappy name so [they] respect companies with crappy names. So we should keep it even though it sucks.”

Lewin acknowledged the company’s losses, but pumped up the mood with a reminder of how far they had come. “When markets go down, they also go up, and when the upturn comes, we can be a hundred billion dollar company. Seriously, we can be.

“Our attitude, which has been true since the beginning, is that we set these massive goals. Going out a year ago and saying we’ll deploy thousands of servers at the edges of the Internet and sign up thousands of customers was kind of a crazy thing for a few people sitting in an office at MIT. We had to work like maniacs and pull all kinds of crazy stunts to make that work, but that’s how we work—we set huge goals.” With his boyish smile, eyes ablaze with excitement, Lewin declared, “No matter what happens, we will not lose. We refuse to lose.”



Although none of Akamai’s executives, including Lewin, were the type to go out on the town, Las Vegas beckoned. Many enjoyed a few late nights, and two employees eloped. Then they all flew home and the work started all over again. And in the new climate of uncertainty, this meant working harder than ever before. It meant more business trips, more hours at the office. In short, it meant a lot of Akamai’s employees were almost never at home. “I got sucked in, Danny got sucked in, and we both sucked each other in, and you never escape that,” recalled Leighton. For some who had families, the absence of work-life balance began to take a toll. Spouses complained, relationships outside work fractured, and some couples split. “It’s hard to stay married when you’re in that life because you’re working all the time, and when you’re home you’re still in work mode,” said Earl Galleher, who left Akamai in early 2000. “But it was also so exciting, and we knew we were in this time that wouldn’t last forever. Even in the moment, we’d say this may never happen again in our lifetimes, and we’d just go [on working].”

They could rationalize the grueling schedule with the promise of a big payout. But even life-altering economics wasn’t enough to make some marriages work, including Lewin’s. As a result, he and Anne separated temporarily, and he moved out of the family home. To many co-workers and friends, the fracturing of his relationship with Anne didn’t come as a surprise. While he always counted her and the boys as his top priority, Lewin’s primary commitment—for the better part of two years—had been Akamai. “No one was spending a ton of time with anyone outside the office—this was all we did,” said Jonathan Seelig. “The company had an impact on everyone’s personal lives.”

In some ways, Lewin’s flirtation with freedom could have been the result of losing his adolescence in an unwanted move to Israel. Friends say that, with no time to enjoy young adulthood—like summers spent at the beach or parties in college dorms—Lewin had an unsatisfied need to cut loose and enjoy his status as a high roller at the top of the boom. In July 2001, Enterprise Systems named him to its list of top ten leaders in technology, writing:

“Lewin has the power to determine his company’s future in what will likely be one of the most fiercely competitive IT markets over the next two years—content delivery. While a down economy has made companies reluctant to take on the expense of innovative technologies, analysts still see a huge market for solutions that speed the transmission of data over the Internet. If Lewin continues to drive innovation at Akamai, the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm could be in position to reap the profits when demand starts to pick up in this space.”

While Lewin never let his money inflate his ego, he did have a lot of it. In April 2001, Forbes magazine ranked him number 72 out of its “The 100 highest Rollers”—an annual list of top-earning titans in high-tech, topped that year by Bill Gates. At age 30, Lewin’s net worth was $285.9 million. Just below him was Leighton, 44, worth $284.3 million. The text read, “These guys [Leighton and Lewin] can freestyle algorithms in their sleep. Plus, Lewin’s experience in the Israel Defense Forces should come in hand as the battle for Internet content delivery gets bloodier…”

Lewin used some of his money to buy a new home, which he lived in for some time without Anne. It was a bachelor pad, outfitted with a hot tub and a Sony sound system. But Lewin also set up a room for Eitan and Itamar, his commitment to his sons unwavering. he hosted a few parties and bought a few more motorcycles—BMWs and Harleys. And, for a time, Lewin also started dating other women. The fact that Lewin strayed from Anne wasn’t talked about much at Akamai. There was the occasional whisper; people had a sense of what was happening almost as soon as Anne stopped coming by. But there was too much pressure for anyone to really stop and judge. They were worried about their stock equity, their countless hours at the office, even the future of their jobs at Akamai.

Saving Akamai from the crash became so labor-intensive that Lewin didn’t even have much time to enjoy his flirtation with a single life—or even a life of great wealth. By the spring of 2001, friends and family were having a hard time connecting with Lewin by cell or email—he was always too busy. For the first time in years, Greenberg and Lewin went months without speaking. Sometime that spring, Lewin sent Greenberg a brief note saying he was sorry. “I’ve been a bad friend,” he wrote. Greenberg didn’t need an apology. He knew Lewin was fighting to keep Akamai, and his personal life, afloat. By April, no measure of confidence could keep the feeble markets from taking a toll. The company carried out its first layoff, eliminating more than 180 jobs, or 14 percent of its work force. At the same time, Akamai warned that its revenue for the first quarter and the full year would fall well short of earlier expectations. In an official statement, the company said its business suffered because of general economic weakness as well as “continuing fallout among dot-com customers.”

Lewin was beginning to feel the strain, and upped the pressure on his staff. On May 8, at 10:30 p.m., he sent a four-page e-mail to his project management team. In it, he hammered home the belief that they needed to reassess their “leadership” roles for the company to make its goals of 150 new customers and an average $20K in monthly recurring revenue.

From: danny@akamai.com

Talking about how to lead people can be a little “cheesy” at times however, in my experience you need to get over the discomfort and create a plan to lead—just like you would create any plan of action… There are a zillion things a great leader does to create and lead a team…I want to focus on the ones I believe are the most important. There are only three: 1. Lead by example 2. Suffer together 3. Hold people accountable and get rid of non-performers. If a team needs to work weekends to be successful—the leader will work weekends, holidays and nights.

In July, Forbes ran a story under the headline “Akamai’s new Internet turbocharger saves Web sites money. Can it save Akamai, too?” It summed up Akamai’s predicament well: With Akamai stock down from $327 just 18 months ago to $7.60, Conrades badly needs this bet to pay off. Last quarter the company lost 150 dot-com customers, more than 10% of its base, with another 50 expected to drop away this quarter. Conrades has no margin for error. If edgeSuite doesn’t catch on his firm will become yet another footnote in the history of dot-com madness.

By summer 2001, Akamai’s stock was so low (at $5) that Leighton recalled a conversation with Lewin in which they both thought how great it would be for it to go back up to at least $20. “Neither of us ever got really down. And the one percent of the time one of us did, the other would smack the other around a bit,” said Leighton. “But the reality at that time was that things looked rough and we weren’t going to escape it.”

It might have been the fight to keep Akamai alive, or maybe it was just some strange, inexplicable combination of circumstances that collided sometime late that summer, but Lewin gained a much greater perspective on his life outside Akamai. First came a visit from his mother and father, the first one Charles had made since Danny, Anne, and the boys left Israel five years earlier. When asked why he didn’t visit more often, Charles Lewin said very little, noting his decision was rooted in “principle.” Friends of Danny’s speculated that to leave Israel, to him, would be to leave the life he created for his family when he made the bold decision to make aliyah. He didn’t want to endorse a life for Danny of some big-moneyed businessman, trapped in the culture of wealth that exploded in the dot-com boom. Of course, Peggy Lewin, who often visited Cambridge, disagreed, calling Charles’ decision one made “out of stubbornness.”

Danny had made several trips to Israel that year to see his family, but friends say he desperately wanted his father to come to Cambridge and see what he had built. He wanted him to be proud. Peggy didn’t know exactly why Charles changed his mind. Nor, for that matter, did Charles. In the first week of September 2001, Charles and Peggy arrived in Boston for a long weekend. They toured Akamai, walked around Cambridge, and talked over a lot of what life had thrown at them over the course of five years. Looking back on the visit, Charles said, “Things occur that we don’t understand in the usual frame of our understandings, and my going there was one of them.” He added, “It was something b’siyata dishmaya [with the help of heaven].”

One evening during that same week, Lewin called Seelig, who was then living in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, and asked if he could drop by. It was late in the evening—sometime around 10 or 11 p.m.—but it had been months since Seelig had the opportunity to talk to Lewin outside of Akamai, so he welcomed him in. Over beers and a game of pool, Lewin and Seelig caught up on everything—work, life, family. Seelig recalled that Lewin seemed to have an unusual sense of peace about him. Lewin told Seelig that the visit from his parents, particularly the chance to see Charles in Cambridge, was monumental. He also told Seelig that he thought he’d figured out how to make his marriage work and that he wanted to spend more time with Anne and his sons. He stayed until past midnight, and when he left, Seelig had the distinct sense that something in Lewin had changed. “I remember him leaving and that I thought, ‘That felt really good,’” Seelig noted. “He seemed so grounded and stable.”

With more layoffs ahead, it was a terrible week for Akamai, but Lewin approached the tumult with his usual cheer and buoyancy. He was scared—the stock had plummeted and a few of Akamai’s customers were on the verge of collapse—but he didn’t show it. On September 10, Lewin called a meeting at Akamai for more than a dozen employees. In a conference room, Lewin offered up a new vision for the company, one that was clear and well planned.

“Danny was very focused,” observed Julia Austin, who was still in charge of the engineering team. “He told us that we were going to shift direction and talked about where we were going next as a company.”

At the end of the meeting, which lasted well over eight hours, Austin and her co-workers—somewhat daunted by the task at hand—tried to convince Lewin to change his plan to travel to Los Angeles the next day and stay in Cambridge to shepherd the layoffs and restructuring. Lewin opened his Blackberry and, for a moment, seemed to consider it, but then said he couldn’t, adding, “You guys will be fine.”

Later that evening, Leighton and Lewin got together for the grim task of eliminating approximately 500 of the company’s 1,500 employees. Both of them knew it was just the first round; by their estimates, Akamai would have to downsize at least 500 more for any chance of survival. Then they’d have to handle the issue of morale; they’d have to convince those who remained that the ship wasn’t sinking. “I remember that night distinctly. It was a horrible, horrible night,” Leighton said. “We recruited these people. They were our friends, and we’d all worked so hard together.” Leighton said Lewin was emotionally drained by the layoffs. He’d personally hired so many staffers, and he agonized over the decision of whom to let go.

Leighton and Lewin worked through the night, and as the hours ticked by, they talked not just as business partners, but also as friends. “It had been an unusual week for Danny in some respects.

“A lot had transpired and he had definitely reached some closure on a bunch of issues related to his family,” said Leighton. “It was good that he had that opportunity to have his parents visit and that his Dad was here. he had a sense of peace.” Leighton also recalled Lewin talking about a motorcycle accident he’d had a few weeks earlier, when a car swerved and hit him, causing a minor injury to his shoulder. Lewin said that instead of approaching the driver and knocking him out, he realized he was in pain and that it would be better to just back off. “It was a surprising thing for him, because he was always on top as it were, and there was always this sense that no one could hurt him,” said Leighton. “He did say that he’d come to grips with his own mortality in some sense.”

It was not until 2 or 3 a.m. on September 10 that Lewin and Leighton wrapped up their work. Lewin had a flight to catch to California in just a few hours, so he said goodbye to Leighton. Late that night, Lewin chose to return to the home he shared with Anne and the boys. In the weeks prior to this, he and Anne had begun to reconcile, and just recently decided to give their marriage another chance. The two of them hoped, Anne said, to remain together for the rest of their lives.

* * *

Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, Lewin kissed Anne goodbye and drove from his home to Boston’s Logan International Airport. He arrived just in time to catch American Airlines Flight 11, scheduled for departure at 8 a.m. and bound, nonstop, for Los Angeles. It was a trip he had taken so many times—more than thirty in the past year—that he knew the flight crew by name, the numbers of the most comfortable seats, and the makes and models of the aircrafts. The plane was partially full—81 passengers, 9 crew members, and 2 pilots, Captain John Ogonowski and First Officer Thomas McGuinness.

Like Lewin, many of the passengers seated in business class were traveling for work on the daily scheduled flight: a television producer, actress, photographer and several businessmen. But Lewin was a standout among them, dressed more like a college kid—in his Gap blue jeans, t-shirt, and grey Nike sneakers—than an Internet entrepreneur. Lewin settled into his seat, 9B, and pulled out his Blackberry to make a phone call before departure. Co-workers say Lewin almost always made calls up until the moment one of the flight attendants reprimanded him for failing to shut down his device. Around 7:30 a.m., with the plane still sitting on the runway, he called Akamai’s in-house attorney, David Judson. Lewin knew Judson was an early riser and often one of the first to arrive at the office. He wanted to check on some paperwork Judson had been preparing for an upcoming deal. Judson said Lewin sounded full of energy despite the sleepless night and looming layoffs. They spoke for about fifteen minutes, until Lewin abruptly ended the call in preparation for takeoff.

“I’ve gotta go,” Lewin told Judson. “They’re telling me I have to hang up my phone.”

American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Logan on schedule at 7:59 a.m. The plane headed due west and held on course for sixteen minutes until it passed Worcester, Massachusetts. Then, instead of taking a southerly turn, it suddenly swung to the north. Just before 8:14 a.m. the plane failed to climb to its assigned cruising altitude of 29,000 feet.

At this point, it’s possible Lewin suspected—perhaps before anyone else on the flight—that something terrible was about to happen. Having trained in the IDF’s most elite counter terrorism unit, he had learned to identify signs of attacks well before they were carried out. He also knew conversational Arabic, enough to have picked up on verbal cues if the five Middle Eastern passengers gave any.

Around 8:15 a.m. a bloody hijacking began on board. Five terrorists—all of them wielding box cutters and knives—rose from their seats in business class and began to threaten passengers and the crew. Most of what we know about the hijacking comes from reports by two flight attendants in the coach cabin, Betty Ong and Madeline “Amy” Sweeney, who calmly and courageously relayed details of the hijacking as it unfolded to authorities on the ground. At 8:19 a.m., Ong told flight control, “The cockpit is not answering, somebody’s stabbed in business class—and I think there’s Mace—that we can’t breathe—I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked.”  In a separate call, Sweeney reported the plane had been hijacked and two flight attendants had been stabbed. Sweeney also confirmed that a passenger in business class had been stabbed to death, his throat slashed by one of the terrorists. The passenger, she said, was sitting in 9B—the seat assigned to Danny Lewin.

Based on the evidence gathered from these phone calls and authorities on the ground, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that, in those first twenty minutes of the flight, Mohamed Atta—the only terrorist on board trained to fly a jet—probably moved to the cockpit from his business-class seat (located within arm’s reach of Lewin’s seat), possibly accompanied by Abdulaziz al-Omari. As this was happening, according to the report, Lewin, who was seated in the row just behind Atta and Omari, was stabbed in the neck by one of the hijackers—probably Satam al-Suqami, who was seated directly behind Lewin, out of view.

Between 8:25 and 8:32, in accordance with the FAA protocol, Boston Center managers started notifying their chain of command that AA Flight 11 had been hijacked and was heading toward New York Center’s airspace. At 8:44, Sweeney made her last call to ground control: “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent . . . We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.”

Seconds later, Sweeney said, “Oh, my God, we are way too low.”

Silence.

At 8:46 a.m., the Boeing 767 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board.

Excerpted with permission from “No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet,” by Molly Knight Raskin. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

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