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Region's Phone System Buckles Under Surge of Calls

By Jonathan Krim and Cynthia L. Webb,
Washington Post Staff Writers

Tuesday, September 11, 2001; 1:41 PM

_____Related Content_____
• Special Report: U.S. Under Attack
• Overview: Q & A
• Timeline of Today's Attacks
• Previous Attacks on U.S. Targets
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_____Multimedia_____
• Photo Gallery: New York Attacks
• MSNBC Video: Towers Collapse
• MSNBC Video: Trade Center Crash
• MSNBC Video: President Bush
• Text: Bush Comments on Attacks
• MSNBC Video: Colin Powell
• MSNBC Video: Giuliani and Pataki
• Video: Eyewitness at Pentagon
• Audio: Expert on Anti-Terrorism
• Audio: Colbert I. King
• Webcam: Pentagon Fire
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_____Graphics_____
• Attack on the Pentagon
• Attack on the World Trade Center
• Area Map of World Trade Center
• Location of Pennsylvania Crash
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_____Closings, Evacuations_____
• Nationwide Closures
• D.C.-Area Closures
_____Related Articles_____
• N.Y., D.C. Rocked by Attacks
• Bush Reacts, Moves to Nebraska
• Pentagon Evacuated After Attack
• Nightmare Shatters NY Morning
• Nation's Capital Shaken
• U.S. Tries to Identify Perpetrators
• Aircraft Carriers Head to Cities
• Federal Gov't Closes Offices
• FAA Closes Airports
• World Reacts With Revulsion
• Attacks Snarl Local Traffic
• D.C. Schools Feel Force of Attacks
• Blood Donors Requested
• Region's Phone System Strained
• Internet Slows After Attacks
• Stock Markets Closed
• Baseball Cancels Games
• Marc Fisher: Coddled No More
• Howard Kurtz: Disaster Unfolds on TV News
_____Pentagon Request_____
The Pentagon has asked that all Navy and Marine personnel who were in the building at the time of the attack to call in to a toll-free number so that the services can put together a roster.
That number is 1-877-663-6772.

Cell phone and pager networks were overwhelmed, telephone lines in New York and Washington became overloaded, and people lined up to use pay phones as the East Coast’s communication infrastructure strained to handle Americans’ need to talk to each other about today’s multiple terrorist attacks.

“This is akin to an earthquake times 10,” said Bill Kula, a spokesman for Verizon, which serves most of the Northeast.

Given the sudden increase in telephone traffic, Verizon encouraged customers to refrain from using the telephone unless it is an emergency. “Of course,” Kula said, “almost any call made to New York might be considered an emergency today.”

Cingular Wireless similarly asked that customers stay off cell phones to clear the airwaves for emergency calls. AT&T, meanwhile, said its network is operational, with overloading that it said is typical during disasters.

Susan Butta, another Verizon spokeswoman, said the company could not yet quantify the volume of traffic. Verizon had a major communications switch in the World Trade Center that was no longer operating after the building collapsed. There were no major outages, but many calls could not be completed because the network could not handle the volume.

For some, e-mail appeared to be a more viable alternative than the telephone. Most Internet traffic seemed to be flowing smoothly, if occasionally slow.

Customers coped as best they could. Some streamed into a cell phone store on L Street in downtown Washington, seeking help for phones that rang busy or did not work at all after the attacks.

“We tell them they are not working. They have to shut [them] down,” said Raj Singh, a salesman at the store. He said customers are being told to keep the lines free to avoid jamming the lines and keep them open for emergency calls.

Attorney Dave Spenard, 45, stood on a street corner with Ronnie Moore, 48, after the building they were in had been evacuated. Spenard tried in earnest to call his wife in Cleveland Park to let her know that he was safe. After 30 minutes of getting a busy tone on his cell phone, he finally got through to tell her he was OK.

Moore, who moved from Ireland in 1978, said when he came to the United States, he thought he was leaving terrorist activity behind.

“This is what the people of Northern Ireland have suffered. ... Now it’s attacking the heart of America. You see now that your society is affected by terrorism,” Moore said.

John Bata, 28, stood in line at an ATM on L Street downtown, saying he decided to take out some emergency cash after calling relatives in Denver to let them know he was all right.

“I definitely feel like I need to get some cash in case we can’t get any later,” Bata said.

Julius Rothstein held his cell phone in one hand and plunked coins into a Verizon pay phone outside a restaurant near 15th Street. His Verizon cell service did not work. After a few tries on the pay phone, Rothstein got through.

“I’m trying to call people [to talk] generally about what’s going on -- to let them know that I’m okay,” said Rothstein, an attorney at the Department of Justice.

Mark Brown, 25, left early from his job as a waiter at the Capital Hilton after hearing about the attacks. He stood outside the hotel, waiting in a line with dozens of people for a bus to get to Georgia Avenue.

“I would like to go home just to see what’s going on,” said Brown, who held a cell phone pressed to one ear, as he tried unsuccessfully to get through to family members. His 3-year-old daughter was in school, and he was trying to get in touch with the school to bring her home.

Staff writers Christopher Stern and Yuki Noguchi contributed to this report.

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© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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