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VERIZON'S URBAN RENEWAL

It's different now. The victories don't come nearly as fast or as often for the people of Verizon Communications. At least not like in the weeks immediately following last Sept. 11, when equal parts adrenaline and coffee flowed through their veins and sleep was something other people did. But the victories still come, and each one — regardless of size or scope — brings Verizon that much closer to the ultimate goal: total restoration of Verizon's 140 West Street central office in New York City, the building devastated when 7 World Trade Center collapsed and fell into it.

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Looking back nearly one year later, Dave Rosenzweig, Verizon's vice president of operations for the northeast and the executive in charge of 140 West Street's recovery, recalls a single moment two days after the tragedy when he seriously questioned whether Verizon could restore service to customers served by the facility and make the building whole once again.

Though the moment was fleeting, what reasonable person could blame him for having such doubts? The damage to 140 West Street was beyond comprehension. Five of the building's sub-levels were flooded with 10 million gallons of water cascading into the building from broken mains and sprinkler systems, as well as fire department hoses. The water destroyed the facility's power plant, including portable diesel generators that were unable to provide critical power to switches and the air conditioning system when Consolidated Edison lost its ability to provide juice.

Steel beams from 7 WTC ripped through 140 West Street, tearing up cables and ripping gaping holes in the building's exterior. The dust and soot stirred up by the collapse of 7 WTC and the Twin Towers combined with the water coursing into the building to cake switches with grime, rendering them inoperable.

Copper lines and optical fiber connecting the facility to its customers were destroyed when falling debris crushed duct banks. So too was the compression system, which kept tide water from the nearby Hudson River from filling manholes containing sensitive cabling.

All told, more than 200,000 access lines and 3.5 million data circuits were put out of service. And it was up to Rosenzweig to figure out how to get them back up and running again.

Fast forward to February 2002. It's 5:00 p.m. and Beth Drohan, Verizon's director of outside plant operations for Manhattan, has just left work. It has been nearly five months since Drohan last saw the sights and sounds of a typical Manhattan rush hour — the sidewalks jammed with commuters racing towards mass transit stations and streets clogged with vehicles crawling to the island's escape hatches and the comparative tranquility of Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island — and she has absolutely no idea what she's supposed to do next.

“It felt really weird going home at five — I didn't want to do it,” Drohan recalled. “It was the only time through this whole ordeal that I thought about going to a counselor. I thought to myself, ‘This is not normal. I should want to go home.’”

Drohan, a member of Rosenzweig's inner circle, is not alone. All of the chief lieutenants who coordinated the recovery effort under Rosenzweig's guidance spoke of a single-minded commitment to the task at hand. Immediately following the disaster, managers and technicians worked seven days a week, 14 to 16 hours a day. Key personnel like Drohan didn't see their homes for days and weeks at a time, forced by necessity and circumstance to grab a few winks wherever and whenever convenient, sometimes in a nearby hotel room, other times at the office. But Verizon's response paid almost immediate dividends: The first dial tones provided by 140 West Street were restored within a week of the bombings.

While that work was ensuing, Verizon was also getting its nearby Broad Street central office — which suffered lesser damage — back on its feet. The Broad Street facility serves the New York Stock Exchange, and the Bush Administration insisted that the exchange open on time the Monday following Sept. 11. To make sure it could, Verizon had to reroute 14,000 private circuits in four days.

All told, more than 95% of the dial tones provided by 140 West Street were restored within a month of the tragedy. Because no manual existed to tell Rosenzweig and his team what to do when a 40-story skyscraper falls and rolls into a central office, many of the solutions were improvised. That they worked so well was a testament to the resources Verizon's upper management threw at the effort. And when they fell short of a particular talent or expertise, Verizon imported managers and technicians from other parts of the country to fill the gaps. At the peak of the recovery, about 2000 Verizon employees and another 1000 contractor personnel took part in the effort.

But given the physically and emotionally draining conditions, Verizon was careful not to force a tour of duty on employees who felt they weren't up to the task. “We had all-stars on the team who performed like all-stars,” Rosenzweig said. “But we also had some good players who rose to the occasion and became all-stars. They discovered that they could deal with more pressure, and do more, than they thought. It was very uplifting.”

Once the dial tones had been restored, the recovery effort shifted from a hair-flying, cheeks-flapping sprint to the more deliberate, plodding pace of a marathon. The task now was to replace with permanent answers all of the temporary solutions that had brought the facility back to life.

Easier said than done. Perhaps buoyed by its initial success, Verizon originally predicted that the recovery would be complete 12 to 14 months after the tragedy. Now the company is saying it won't finish until early 2003 at the earliest, and the final bricks might not be laid until 18 months from now.

Though the pace has slowed a bit — techs and managers now take at least one day off every two weeks, and workdays typically have shortened to no more than 12 hours — the timetable has lengthened primarily because Verizon continually has encountered a number of surprises along the way.

“We would fix one thing, and that would affect something else. Once we saw how intricately the network was intermeshed, we realized the recovery effort would take considerably longer,” said Jim McLaughlin, Verizon's director of network operations for Manhattan.

Nevertheless, McLaughlin is pleased with the effort and results so far. “There was no clear start or finish. We had to dig down and make some tough choices. Some things we could have done better, but overall I think we did OK.”

There have been other surprises. In repairing brickwork damaged by the collapse of 7 WTC, Verizon discovered some of the steel beams residing behind the brick suffered significant structural damage. To get at the beams, they will have to jack up part of 140 West Street.

“It's been like peeling back an onion,” said Dominic Veltri, Verizon's manager of real estate operations. “With each layer, you really didn't know what you were getting into.”

Veltri's sidekick George Famulare, also a manager of real estate operations, had a rather unwelcome surprise recently when he discovered a 140 West office space that no one had entered since Sept. 11.

“I thought I had been over every inch of this building,” said Famulare. “How we missed this room, I don't know.”

In the room was four inches of asbestos and sheetrock dust blown over when 7 WTC and the Twin Towers fell, as well as all sorts of paper that had once been in file cabinets and on desks in the Trade Center — file cabinets and desks that no longer exist. As if that wasn't sobering enough, there was also a shoe.

Famulare had to go into the contaminated room to take a look. “There was some concern there might be a foot in it.”

Fortunately for Famulare, there wasn't. But this experience — one of thousands — underscores the uniqueness of the task that Verizon has faced over the past year, and will face over several more months. No telephone company has ever experienced anything remotely similar, either in terms of the technological and logistical challenges or the emotional toll.

Drohan spoke of the pall she and her colleagues felt when the ceremony was held to mark the removal of the final girder from Ground Zero just across the street. However, that sadness was replaced by joy when temporary copper cables that had been strung up the building to replace damaged cable inside 140 West Street were recently removed. “That gave people some sense of closure,” Drohan said.

Complete closure is somewhere in Verizon's future. There is plenty still to do. One damaged Class 5 switch still needs to be replaced. Portable generators still provide power to the building, as ConEd continues to work toward full restoration of commercial power. Temporary chilling units are still providing 140 West Street with air conditioning. The temporary compressor plant located a couple of blocks will continue to keep the Hudson at bay for another few months. The damaged steel beams must be addressed. The gaping holes that still exist in the building's façade will need to be patched up.

In all, damage to 140 West Street stands at $1.4 billion. Verizon expects its insurance to cover half that sum, and is hoping for government assistance to fund some of what's left. Either way, customers won't see an increase in their monthly bill.

In the meantime, Rosenzweig and his team are looking forward to the day when the final brick is put in place. But they also realize that a defining period in their lives is lurching to its conclusion.

“I don't want to do anything like this ever again,” said Rosenzweig. “But I was blessed with having the chance to do it once.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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