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Spring Journal

Volume 32, Issue 1

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When President Bush urged Americans to “get back to work” in the week following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation responded. It was a straightforward way for most Americans to prove their patriotism.

But for businesses in the shadow of New York’s World Trade Center (WTC), like Deloitte & Touche, that simple directive was met with major obstacles.
Deloitte & Touche, one of the world’s largest accounting firms, occupied 600,000 square feet of space in two towers of the World Financial Center located across the street from the WTC. The impact of the collapses of the buildings of the WTC not only devastated those offices of Deloitte & Touche, it almost crippled its business viability.

To understand what companies like Deloitte & Touche and their disaster recovery workers were up against, imagine the aftermath of several disasters – hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires – all in the same already severely congested business district. This was to be the biggest cleanup effort in the nation’s history – amidst the tightest security ever.

Like most businesses, once Deloitte & Touche took care of its employees’ well-being, the rebuilding effort started – not with the building but the recovery of vital data.


“All of our people use laptops. This is how we communicate, how we work. We needed to get those computers out of the building,” said Peter Hoffman, partner, Deloitte & Touche. “We already had a significant business interruption, not getting those out and to our people would have made it significantly worse.”
Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, restoration experts and about 30 employees donned respirators and large canvas bags and set out to the Deloitte & Touche offices to recover the laptops.

As anyone involved in the disaster recovery efforts can tell you, the biggest obstacle faced was just getting to the sites. The logistics of doing business in downtown Manhattan on a typical day is difficult, and now all the streets in lower Manhattan were going to be closed for a good while.

In the early weeks, walking was the only way to get around. It wasn’t unusual to have to walk six to 12 miles a day, just to find a way to and from the worksite.

And once you got through security into the “frozen” zones, you weren’t leaving for a while. Luckily there were Salvation Army and other relief workers on hand to take care of the basic necessities like food and water.

Getting through security alone was a full-time job. Every block had armed uniformed guards. To access a worksite, workers would go through four or five security checkpoints. Every truck and person had to be identified and on the list of approved contractors. The passes kept changing.

“It was really like a war zone,” said Hoffman. “There was still a fire even though it was some days later. There were lots of military personnel.”

The impact of the buildings’ collapses broke more than a thousand windows in the World Financial Center. One side of the building was almost completely caved in. The inside of the offices were strewn with debris from WTC and broken furniture.

And dust was everywhere. In the Deloitte & Touche offices, some floors were covered with eight inches of concrete dust.

Officials carried out 15 laptops at a time once they reached the site. That evening, one of the ballrooms of the Marriott hotel in midtown was converted into a computer cleaning station. The Marriott was near another Deloitte & Touche office and a popular company meeting site. The site was cleaned to ensure no cross contamination of the computers would result. Restoration of the laptops began immediately.

The laptops were phased into the restoration specialists as they were recovered from the Deloitte & Touche offices. The computers were disassembled, detail cleaned, Hepa vacuumed and put back together. They were tested by an outside environmental company to ensure they were free of asbestos and other contaminants.
“We were told originally 40 a day would be cleaned and returned to our people,” says Hoffman. “That just wasn’t fast enough.”

Miraculously, the specialists upped that figure to 100 a day.

Eventually 1,700 laptops were cleaned and returned to Deloitte & Touche employees. It took less than two weeks. “Our people didn’t have an office, but they had their computers. If they had their computers they could work at temporary locations such as home. They could work anywhere. That was very, very important,” said Deloitte & Touche’s Hoffman. “And, giving them back their computers also gave our people a sense of comfort.”

After the computer restoration, attention turned to cleaning documents and the offices itself. But according to Hoffman, once the computers were saved, so was the firm.

“This really made us aware of how much technology has entered our lives,” he said. “We were in the World Trade Center in 1993 (during the terrorist bombing) and while we had computers then, getting them out back then wasn’t as urgent.”
Deloitte & Touche, along with 13 other major companies in the area, is in the process of moving back to the World Financial Center. “The feeling here is not one of despair but of optimism,” said Hoffman. “The area went from a thriving business center one minute to a war zone the next, then to a construction site and slowly it is coming full circle – back to a vibrant business center.”

Bernard Poole is northeast regional director for Belfor USA, the world’s largest disaster reconstruction company with more than 50 offices throughout North America and offices in more than 24 countries.