Telephone networks and Internet news sites were swamped yesterday as people searched for information and the whereabouts of family and friends after the terrorist attacks on New York and suburban Washington.
Phone companies urged customers to refrain from making nonemergency calls in the first such disaster in an era when many people have multiple landline and wireless phones and Internet communications.
Verizon Corp. expected to handle 230 million calls in New York City and 70 million in Washington - twice its normal volume. That did not include the countless number of attempted calls that did not get through, spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said.
"There's no equipment vendor that can engineer for a disaster of this proportion," said Denise Panyik-Dale, a spokesman for Lucent Technologies Inc., based in Murray Hill, N.J., which was working with Verizon to increase capacity. "People are trying desperately to get in touch with their loved ones. Networks are not necessarily designed to handle the traffic that we have happening today."
Directory assistance was hampered as Verizon closed centers that house its operators in Washington and Jersey City, N.J., nearest the attacks.
Verizon also reported two injured employees among its 488 who work in the lower floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
AT&T Corp. also reported twice the typical volume of long-distance calls yesterday - up to 4 million every 5 minutes. It dispatched emergency crews into lower Manhattan to repair damaged equipment, said Dave Johnson at AT&T's network operations center in Bedminster, N.J.
Wireless carriers were trying to amass cellular phones to deliver to emergency personnel. Nextel Communications Inc. of Reston, Va., whose cell phones include a two-way radio, and Motorola Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., prepared to deliver 5,000 handsets in New York and Washington. Other companies were mobilizing "cows" - cellular sites on wheels - in Jersey City to patch the damaged network.
"E-mail is a saving grace in a situation like this," said Brian Ocheltree, chief executive officer of e.magination Network LLC, an Internet company in Baltimore, after he was unable to reach co-workers on their cell phones in Washington.
Although news Web sites were deluged, a company that monitors Internet traffic said the attack that destroyed the twin towers was not as disruptive to the U.S. network as the train tunnel fire in Baltimore that severed a critical midpoint in July.
"With the tunnel fire, a number of major cables were severed between major Internet service providers, but the World Trade Center is basically the end of the road for a lot of fiber, not the middle," said Bill Jones of Keynote Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., company that measures Internet performance. "The biggest thing we're seeing is that news sites are being inundated."
The Internet search engine Google directed news seekers to radio and television, while America Online's Instant Messenger service in New York was sporadic. The search engine Yahoo! added servers to help handle the extra traffic. Many news sites reduced graphics to allow users to access them faster, including msnbc.com and nytimes.com.
New York Times Digital removed the registration requirement on its Web site as "hits" doubled, spokeswoman Christine Mohan said. It posted a video of the jet crash into the trade center that the Web site's multimedia editor, Naka Nathaniel, filmed from home across the Brooklyn Bridge, Mohan said.
The Baltimore Sun's Web site, sunspot.net, was unreachable from about 9 a.m. to noon as it became deluged, but the speed improved later in the day as designers removed images from the home page unrelated to the major news, said Jack Gibbons, editor of the site.
Lexent Inc., a New York company that helped rebuild fiber-optic cables in the trade center after the bombing there in February 1993, was gathering information from telecommunications companies whose systems were damaged, including wireless transmitters on the roof.
"It's a major infrastructure hub," said Lexent's Susan Dewitt.
Allegiance Telecom, a Dallas-based telecommunications provider to small and mid-sized businesses, evacuated a switching facility near the trade center. Its engineers monitored the site remotely, spokesman Jerry Ostergaard said.
The company saw Internet traffic increase 25 percent in Chicago by 11 a.m., even though the Sears Tower and many other downtown offices had closed for the day.
"You try to get into CNN.com and your screen's going to freeze up," Ostergaard said.
Said Daniel Berninger, managing director of pulver.com, a telecommunications research firm in Melville, N.Y.: "The system held up pretty well except for getting overloaded.
"People had a lot of alternative means of communications. My guess is this will be a defining moment for the future of telecommunications. It will bolster a lot of the reliability issues and some of the capacity problems."