Photo courtesy Boston Globe
This essay is adapted from No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet by Molly Knight Raskin, out now from Da Capo Press.
Just before 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston’s Logan Airport. Bound non-stop for Los Angeles, the flight was just one of more than 40,000 scheduled to crisscross the country that day. The plane was partially full—81 passengers, nine crewmembers, and two pilots. Many of its passengers were traveling for work on the daily scheduled flight, including 31-year-old Internet entrepreneur Danny Lewin.
The plane headed due west and held on course for 16 minutes until it passed Worchester, Mass. Then, instead of taking a southerly turn, it swung to the north and failed to climb to its assigned cruising altitude. Around this time, a bloody hijacking began onboard. Five terrorists, all of them wielding box cutters and knives, commandeered the plane and steered it into New York airspace. At 8:46 a.m., the Boeing 767 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Flight 11 was the first of four planes to be hijacked the day of the attacks, killing everyone on board and hundreds more when it caused the collapse of the North Tower. But before any of the horror unfolded that day, a little-known act of heroism is likely to have taken place on Flight 11 when Lewin—an Israeli-American who served in one of the most elite counterterrorism units of the Israel Defense Force (IDF)—rose from his seat and engaged in a struggle with one of the terrorists to try and thwart the hijacking. During the struggle Lewin was killed, making him the very first victim of the 9/11 attacks.
Until now, Lewin’s story has remained untold—mainly out of respect for friends and family who closely guarded their memories of the brilliant commando-turned computer scientist. In addition, the official reports of what happened on Flight 11 were, for some time, conflicting and confusing. A memo mistakenly released by the Federal Aviation Administration stated that terrorist Satam al-Suqami shot and killed Lewin with a single bullet around 9:20 a.m. (obviously inaccurate, as the plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.). But almost as soon as the memo was leaked, FAA officials claimed it was written in error and that Lewin had been stabbed, not shot. The 9/11 Commission concurred in its final report, issued four years later, offering a more detailed summary: Based on dozens of interviews with those who spoke with two of the plane’s flight attendants during the hijacking, the commission determined that al-Suqami most likely killed Lewin by slashing his throat from behind as he attempted, single-handedly, to try to stop the hijacking. The time of his death was reported to be somewhere between 8:15 and 8:20 a.m.
“He was the first victim of the first war of the 21st century,” says Marco Greenberg, Lewin’s best friend.
But that act of heroism was not the only way Lewin made his presence felt on that terrible, unique, awful day. In a tragic twist of irony, the algorithms he helped develop, and the company he co-founded—Akamai Technologies—helped the Internet survive that day’s crush of traffic— the Web equivalent of a 100-year flood.
Born in Denver, Col., Lewin moved to Israel with his family in 1984. The move happened totally against his will; his father, Charles, had become an ardent Zionist and relocated his family to “make aliyah,” a term used to describe the repatriation of Jews to Israel. Lewin was just 14 years old, and he was furious at his family’s sudden uprooting. During his first few months in Israel he struggled to learn the language and make friends. Instead of rebelling, however, Lewin turned to his two greatest assets—his physical strength and superior intellect. Sailing through his classes at a Jerusalem technology school and spending all his spare time at a local gym, Lewin fought to fit in with the Israeli sabras (tough guys), and in time he succeeded. By age 18 he was signing up for military service in the IDF, where he joined the ranks of country’s most elite counterrorism unit, Sayeret Mat’kal.
Because of the unit’s code of silence, the details of Lewin’s exploits in Sayeret Mat’kal are not known. But it is known that he spent three years training to combat terrorism on top-secret missions. After rising to the rank of captain, Lewin decided to return to graduate school to pursue his interest in math and computer science. He studied at the Technion (Israeli Institute of Technology), then MIT, where he’d been accepted on a full scholarship.
It was at MIT that Lewin came up with an idea for his master’s thesis that he believed had the potential to change the way the burgeoning Internet worked. In the mid-‘90s, a time when the greatest impediment to the growth of the Internet was congestion, Lewin wrote a set of algorithms he called “consistent hashing.” The idea that his thesis work could speed up the delivery of content on the massive, tangled channels that formed the Internet was audacious, but with the encouragement of his mentor—MIT professor Tom Leighton—he pursued it. By 1998, the two mathematicians had taken a complex set of algorithms, patented them, and created Akamai, a company that still today uses its intelligent software to deliver content quickly and efficiently on the Internet. By 1999, the company had grown from just a few engineers in an office near MIT to a hot tech company boasting a worldwide network of servers and big name customers including Yahoo, Apple, and CNN. Its October 1999 IPO made Lewin and Leighton overnight billionaires, but Lewin had almost no time to enjoy his early, explosive success. First came the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and with it and around-the-clock struggle to keep Akamai afloat. Then came 9/11.
On the morning of 9/11, Lewin was scheduled to travel to Los Angeles for a business meeting for Akamai. Just after dawn, he kissed his wife and kids goodbye and drove to Logan to catch Flight 11. He was sleep-deprived, having spent most of the night occupied with the grim task of laying people off to save Akamai. Yet he remained cheerful and energetic, calling the office from the tarmac and chatting with Akamai’s attorney until the moment the flight attendants asked him to shut down for takeoff.
The moment Lewin’s friends, family and co-workers learned of his death, they say they had no doubts about what happened during his final moments. Before any facts or official reports about the events of 9/11 had been released, everyone who knew hum well believed with certainty that he tried to stop the terrorists from carrying out the hijacking. It wasn’t just the fact that he was physically imposing; sheer muscle from head to toe. It was also the fact that Lewin was a trained warrior who never went down without a fight.
Because of Akamai, almost every major news site remained up and running that day, a feat that proved everything Danny promised to be possible. Today, Akamai is responsible for more than 30 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, and for keeping giants like iTunes and Facebook running smoothly.
But it isn’t just Akamai that Danny Lewin left behind. He left a family, all of whom continue to mourn his loss and honor him in every day life. He left behind countless friends and co-workers, many of them battle-hardened warriors in business or the military. To this day, most of them still can’t speak about him without choking back tears for the buoyant, brilliant computer scientist who changed their lives and inspired them never to fall behind.